A number of years ago we were visiting friends in New England and drove into Boston for a day. After lunch at Durgin Park, a place we’d visited many years earlier, we wandered over to Faneuil Hall and found ourselves on the edges of a Naturalization Ceremony. A number of people were becoming American citizens and you would have thought you were at a wedding! They were all dressed up and afterwards came outside. There were lots of family pictures with everyone holding up citizenship certificates. It was a stirring sight to witness how excited these men and women were to have obtained something I’d always taken for granted.
It is not easy to become a citizen. First, you have to obtain “lawful permanent resident” status (not easy to obtain) and then be a resident for 3 or 5 years depending on your status (those who enter military service can be “fast-tracked”). There is a citizenship test that many of us might be hard-pressed to pass.
I came across all this today in a book I’m reading. One of the things it included was the U.S. Oath of Citizenship naturalized citizens swear. It is as follows:
“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”
I wonder if most who are citizens of the United States by birth are aware of this oath. Do we think of ourselves as citizens and that our allegiance to the United States implies these same obligations? These three phrases were particularly striking:
- that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law;
- that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law;
- that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law;
Most men between 18 and 25 (I suspect women will someday do this as well) are required to register for Selective Service. It has been over 40 years since this led to compulsory service but registration reminds us that it can be required. What is more interesting is that our country can call us to “work of national importance under civilian direction.” Most of us think that citizenship simply requires paying my taxes, obeying the laws and hoping the government will leave me alone (except when I want its benefits like Social Security or health insurance). Jury duty is an inkling that we can be called upon for the social good.
I discovered that our citizenship oath is far more extensive in its undertakings than other countries. Canadians swear (or affirm):
I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen.
I solemnly declare that I will respect and observe the Basic Law and the laws of the Federal Republic of Germany, and that I will refrain from any activity which might cause it harm. (English translation)
I wonder why we make so much of a bigger deal about the national defense and not simply allegiance and obedience to the laws of the land. It is interesting that this language has only been in effect since 2008. But perhaps this is fitting in a country where our budget for national defense is the largest in the world and more than about the next nine countries combined. Perhaps it is good to put new citizens on notice of this from the start.
Jack Parr once said that “immigration is the sincerest form of flattery.” The joy of those who become naturalized citizens ought to remind us of what a good place this is–something we take for granted far too much and invest in far too little. But the oath they take also makes me pause to consider the “cost” of American greatness, a cost to which we have implicitly or explicitly committed ourselves–a cost to which we are lawfully obligated.
Are we down for that?