By Amanda Sturgill, associate professor of journalism
Americans have had a lot of opportunity to think about oaths this summer, watching the public hearings from the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol. Before they testify, every witness takes an oath, promising to tell the truth.
Saying things under oath is different from a speech, a tweet or an off-the-cuff remark.
Oaths and vows mark some of the most important events in our lives. Whether it’s offering sworn testimony, after coming down the aisle at your wedding, or joining the military, oaths are serious business. And they should be.
They are one of the only ways we have of formally marking the agreements make that define how we will live together, whether in our married home, with brothers-in-arms or in an entire country. We define how we will act in those agreements we bind with an oath.
In the Jan. 6 hearings, witnesses are asked to agree with the following — “Do you swear under the penalty of perjury that the testimony you are about to give is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” It’s serious business that can be enforced with years of jail time if you break the oath.
Watching the select committee’s hearings, we’ve learned about other oaths that matter to witnesses and, in some ways, motivate them to testify. For example, Russell Bowers, the speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, testified that he received a call from President Donald Trump and Rudy Guiliani pressuring him to help remove Biden electors in Arizona and replace them with Trump electors. He said he told the former president, “You’re asking me to do something against my oath, I will not break my oath.”
Testimony isn’t the only time someone takes an oath. The U.S. Code prescribes that all federal employees do as well, as a condition of their job.
Their oath reads “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, and 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.”
As Jeff Neal wrote in the Federal News Network, “One purpose of the Oath of Office is to remind federal workers that they do not swear allegiance to a supervisor, an agency, a political appointee, or even to the President.”
It’s not a person that’s at the top of an employee’s federal organization chart. It’s the Constitution.
For civil servants, loyalty to the leader causes a problem when the leader ignores his or her own promise. If the president or an appointee asks you to do something that violates the Constitution, it’s an issue.
It’s not a new issue. I researched civil servants for a forthcoming book about those who, faced with conflicts between leader and oath, started rogue Twitter accounts. They turned to social media when they saw new political appointees in their agencies undermining the Constitution, using government power to satisfy political allies or to ensure prosperity for only some Americans instead of promoting the general welfare.
They used social media to raise awareness, within the bounds of the law. From their anonymous accounts, they shared publicly knowable information about what was happening in the government to catch the attention of both journalists and the public. Often, they brought visibility to issues journalists wouldn’t have thought to ask about.
Their movement, which they called the #AltGov, began with tweets from National Parks on Inauguration Day and soon civil servants from several agencies were inspired to create group and individual accounts, some of which persist today.
Societies hold together because we make promises to each other. Oaths are one of the ways that we can help keep each other honest about promises to the community. These hearings help show that faithfulness to one’s oaths makes a difference whether one is at the top, or the newest hire who just made a promise.
Views expressed in this column are the authors’ own and not necessarily those of Elon University.