Every Drop of Blood, That Every Roman Bears…
- Some of the republican MPs feel uncomfortable pledging loyalty to the House of Windsor.
- Several of the Maori MPs would have preferred to swear to honour the Treaty of Waitangi since that is closer to their hearts than the Monarchy.
This led me to ponder the nature of oaths and what they are supposed to signify in a modern word.
On one level, the wording of the oath/affirmation is prescribed by law, and if Members of Parliament can’t follow the law, on their first day at work, why should anyone else be expected to? On the other hand, why do we still insist people swear loyalty to the Queen specifically? It’s not like the role of a Member of Parliament in New Zealand has much of anything to do with the Queen in practice. At least the Congressional Oath of Office is on point:
I, AB, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
And it can’t just be that she’s the Head of State because not all countries require members of the legislature to swear loyalty to the Head of State. There’s nothing in the above oath about bearing allegiance to the President. Indeed, I would expect most Americans to find the idea repugnant. I strongly suspect the practice is only tolerated by New Zealanders precisely because it’s an empty gesture.
This further led me to wonder why we require people to swear oaths at all. The history of the practice could be traced to the medieval practice of swearing oaths, based on the superstition that God would more harshly punish one who swore falsely in his name than one who simply broke a promise. If this is the reason for requiring an oath it serves little purpose in a modern, secular nation. For one thing, the idea of permitting an affirmation makes no sense if the point is bring God into it. But then the practice of oaths isn’t really a Christian one either. Jesus warned against oaths (“let your yes be yes, and your no, no”) and some sects of Christian refuse to swear oaths on that basis. Arguably, oath swearing is more of a Roman tradition than a Christian one. And yet our modern governments are even less Roman than they are Christian.
Perhaps in the past, oaths carried more weight than other undertakings – historically a man could be bound by an oath. But that’s not a good fit for the modern world either. The law grants no special weight to oaths, and can bind you to your promises without any oath (a contract can be legally binging even if the two parties never directly communicated with each other, let alone swore oaths). What about social expectation then? Would you trust someone to keep their oath, even if you wouldn’t trust their word otherwise? If so, why? If not, why ask for an oath in the first place?
Or is it that I am overthinking this? Is the point of the thing to merely formally mark the start of an MP’s term, thereby accepting the powers and duties that come with the office. In that sense, an oath is the ancestor to the more modern, statutory declaration. The idea of formally delineating a change in status has merit (even if we don’t have an equivalent ceremonial mark at the other end), but if that’s what it’s for, why does none of the wording say that? Why not have them stand up and say “I, ____ accept the role of Member of the 51st Parliament, with all the rights and obligations that entails”. For that matter, why do it verbally; barring old traditions that have been grandfathered in, our society (and law) tends to place higher weight on written than spoken pledges. So why not give each new MP a declaration to sign that outlines their powers and obligations, and have the Clerk of the House formally accept the signed declaration from each MP, ensuring it is in order?
Ultimately the matter of the oath doesn’t amount to much in practice, it’s a fossilised ceremonial practice, a real-life version of the Space Shuttle Booster whose measurement was determined by the width of a Roman chariot. But when you start to think about things like this you can’t help but wonder how many other things do our governments do simply because there was a reason at some point, even if that reason has long since disappeared?
How do you feel about this practice? Do you feel oaths still matter? If you do, what is it about an oath that speaks to you? If not, do yuo agree that it might be symptomatic of the tendency of governments to cling to history too tightly?
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