Pledges, oaths, and creeds - A rich source of moral dilemmas


Chuck Doswell

Posted: 26 August 2009 Updated: 02 September 2009: some minor wording revisions.

This is my opinion. If you wish to communicate your opinion regarding this topic, you can contact me at cdoswell at - either use the email hyperlink or cut and paste after replacing _at_ with @). However, if you're not willing to have your comments posted here, along with my response, don't waste my time or yours.

This essay grows out of a "discussion" on Facebook. I began the discussion by advocating the removal of the phrase "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. A friend and colleague suggested that the pledge itself could represent something of a problem. This got me to thinking about both patriotism and religion in the good old USA. There seems to be a tendency in this country toward people proclaiming their faith or their patriotism rather defiantly. They seem to be saying that they're both proud of their beliefs and defying anyone to deny the validity of those beliefs. Sort of an in-your-face profession of belief, with a messianic undertone. I seem to detect an increase in the inclusion of both religious and patriotic symbols in the way people dress: American flags in suit lapel holes, crosses and crucifixes on necklaces, even tattoos! This sort of behavior - metaphorically wearing your beliefs "on your sleeve" - seems to be on the rise. I detect a kind of insecurity in this. If you have personal beliefs for which you stand, I would think a secure person is willing to let their actions speak to their beliefs, rather than "loud" declarations regarding those beliefs.

When I was a child, I was introduced to both patriotic declarations and religious creeds right from infanthood. Every day in school, we began by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, (hereinafter, the PoA). Apparently, this was needed not just once, but every day, just to reinforce the message. The addition of the phrase "under God" occurred in 1954, well after I first learned the PoA. I recall that change distinctly. In church, during the liturgy, we were called to state our beliefs every Sunday by a recitation of the Apostle's Creed. As I was doing this, the idea of questioning what we were doing didn't occur to me right away. It was only during my teenage years that I began to question the oaths I was reciting by rote. I was particularly concerned about the religious statements I was mouthing in church. I knew them by heart, of course. I'd been saying them for many years without thinking about what I was saying. The more I thought about the words I was saying, the more concerned I became. To what extent did I truly believe in these things? When I was uttering those words, what was my real commitment to them? The immediate answer was ... none! I'd been required to do these recitations and since everyone else was doing them, how could I do anything else? The fact is, of course, this is simple indoctrination - brainwashing. It's what we abhor in "cults" but otherwise tolerate in the shibboleths of everyday life.

A classic example of the dangers associated with such things is the evolution of the Nazis in Germany. Especially in the Prussian-dominated military of Germany, an oath wasn't just words. It was a sacred vow, the violation of which was unthinkably dishonorable. When German soldiers were required to swear loyalty to Hitler, this wasn't just a bunch of meaningless utterances to the typical German soldier. It was an unalterable contract that could only be broken by death or dishonor. And we all know (ad nauseum) where all of that led. Germans were encouraged to wear symbols of their patriotism, literally on their sleeves in the case of swastika armbands. They were immersed in a sea of propaganda designed expressly to extract an unquestioning obedience to the regime. Any hint of reluctance to follow their pledge to the letter was likely to end up in a concentration camp and/or a firing squad. Strong motivation to honor your pledge, indeed. To the point of implicitly sanctioning the horrors of the Holocaust and the devastations wreaked by the Nazi legions over the duration of the regime.

It's perhaps fortunate that many in America just go through the motions of swearing this or that in public without much thought about the consequences. We seem ready to shed oaths at the drop of hat. How many married couples looked in each other's eyes at the ceremony and exchanged vows of loyalty to each other in public, and in the presumed presence of some Deity, and then proceeded to run roughshod over those vows, culminating in the dissolution of marriages in a paroxysm of loathing and vitriol? What meaning did those vows have? Precisely none. Our lack of respect for oaths, pledges, vows, etc. actually is direct evidence that we wouldn't hesitate for an instant to dump them when it's convenient to do so, or difficult to maintain the illusion of our sincere beliefs. Hypocrisy comes easy for us, so perhaps we're less vulnerable than the Germans were during the Nazi era. Fortunately, our government doesn't shoot people for not reciting the PoA - yet.

Surely, however, we must have rigid obedience within the military. Can a soldier really ask questions about his/her orders from those high in the chain of command? When I was in the Army, I was forced to memorize the "Code of Conduct" (hereinafter, CoC) in boot camp - in its current incarnation, it reads:

During my stint in the Army, the CoC was shorter and included a lot less guidance about what to do if captured - in part, I think this is a reaction to events in Korea and Vietnam. And I don't recall that "trust in my God" phrase, either, which may represent thereby another recent addition (more overt religiosity forced on Americans by the religious majority). If we think about how American soldiers have behaved in the past with regard to the articles of the CoC, it's evident that many of our troops have failed to honor these pledges, albeit mostly under severe duress. When you put young men under the intense stress of combat and then of capture and especially torture, I think you'll find many of them will fail to live up to these ideals.

And just what is that "lawful order"? A soldier is supposed to obey all lawful orders without hesitation or question - but those same soldiers also are required by law to disobey unlawful orders! If you receive an order, then, isn't it implicit that you must then ask yourself the question, "Is this or is this not a lawful order?" That seems to contradict the notion of unquestioned obedience, does it not? Sure, common sense tells you that most of your received orders are lawful. But what about in the stress of combat? Everyone should have disobeyed the orders of Lt. William Calley at My Lai in Vietnam, it seems, but ... virtually no one did. Is that understandable? Of course it is. In a war where some kid could be carrying a concealed bomb, and many of the Viet Cong soldiers didn't wear a uniform, it would be difficult to know just who's truly innocent and who's simply a disguised killer. In a situation where obeying orders is routine, and disobeying orders carries with it the virtual certainty of court-martial, and everyone around you is obeying the order, what would you do? William Calley now regrets what he did, but in the process he turned everyone under his command into an unprosecuted law-breaker. And his chain of command was involved in this war crime, but they also escaped any prosecution.

So what meaning should we put in our oaths, pledges, and vows? Can and should we discard them at the first hint of a moral dilemma, or should we cling to our word before all else? Are such pledges simply mindless mouthing of words or a sacred contract? Just how do we try to deal with this in the real world? Unfortunately, it seems that like most moral questions, these have no simple answers. We have to address the questions as they arise, and each challenge to our oaths may require a different answer.

When I was reading The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, he talked about the challenge confronting the prisoners. If they stole food from fellow prisoners, they might stay alive, but their actions likely would result in the death of those from whom they stole. If they chose not to steal, they would almost certainly die. The situation forced everyone to make such a decision on a daily basis. What sort of person am I? Solzhenitsyn chose not to judge anyone by their actions - who knew the circumstances in which each person found themselves? Dying in a Gulag prison camp might cause the death of your family, or whatever. But Solzhenitsyn said that everyone must live with the consequences of their deeds, especially when those deeds are associated with harm to others. If they have nightmares as a result of what they did, then it's clear that they aren't entirely satisfied with their choices. Of course, common thugs - little more than feral predators on society - might not have the slightest qualms about their deeds under such circumstances. But all must accept responsibility for their choices. This is the lesson imposed on the Nazis at Nuremburg - following unlawful orders is not an excuse, is it?

Whatever choices you make, you'd better be willing to accept the consequences of those choices. When you simply mouth the words of an oath ... why bother? But should that oath lead you to perpetrate harm on others, was taking and keeping that oath a good moral decision? Sometimes the harsh reality of situations we find ourselves in isn't so easy to resolve. Common sense might not provide you with a simple answer. Oaths, pledges, creeds ... they inevitably contain the seeds of moral dilemmas and there may not be any simple way to reconcile the conflicts presented to you in the real world.

For whatever it's worth, I personally find organized religion to offer no help at all in this process. The deities of the major organized religions seem almost totally absorbed with unquestioning obedience and faith (look at the Ten Commandments, for example), and simultaneously can demand that we not kill anyone and that we kill unbelievers. This sounds more like the psychosis of a paranoid demagogue than a moral guide for challenging situations. Contradictions abound in all so-called sacred texts, so what sort of guidance do they provide? Perhaps to some, they do, but not for me.

I'm forced to conclude that oaths and pledges are inconsistent with morality - requiring people to take oaths is a sign of insecurity. It carries the implication that loyalty to a cause can't be based on the honor of its content and, especially, its actions, but must be tested by requiring adherents to do unspeakable things to prove their loyalty (as in the case of Job in the Old Testament). Such requirements dishonor the cause. If you need me to make a loyalty pledge, you imply that you can demand I honor that pledge before all else, no matter what. I find that rather disturbing.