|President Barack Obama|
Pundits as diverse as Karen Finney and John Stossel have accused Snowden, who enjoyed top secret clearance, as having violated “sacred vows” to the government. Recycling the same language previously targeted at whistleblower Bradley Manning, who had similar clearance and identical moral qualms. These attitudes, and the legal bloodlust that have followed both whistleblowers, arise from an explicitly religious figuration of the American government.
Citizens taking oaths in America are required to take those vows on some sacred text. Even laying aside the question of religious affiliation, there is reliable evidence that correlating honesty with faith has measurable effect even on unbelievers. The controversy surrounding Representative Keith Ellison taking his oath of office on a Koran demonstrates how important the idea of vows having some external backing transcends sectarian differences.
But this is a far cry from saying that the government itself has religious import, or correlating whistleblowing with apostasy. Snowden and Manning both caught the government engaged in activity that was, at the very least, unethical, unseemly, and anti-democratic. Trying to bury these tipsters in quasi-liturgical language only compounds the transgression. Because even if America is a Christian nation (which this Christian doubts), the state is not God.
The American military’s oath of enlistment requires soldiers to affirm “that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me.... So help me God.” But even this oath has limits. History teaches that “just following orders” is not a legal defense. Enlisted soldiers under command have a legal requirement to refuse unlawful or unethical orders. God’s help does not cover malfeasance.
Consider the most common “sacred vows” citizens engage. Married couples enjoy certain legal privileges, particularly that citizens cannot be compelled to testify against their spouses, and spousal communications share the protected confidence of medical or clerical confessions. But this protection is not absolute. If your spouse commits a crime and you don’t report it, you’re an accessory. If your spouse intends to commit a crime, you’re legally required to prevent it.
Speaking of clerical confessions, many people, even priests, misunderstand what confessional confidence protects. If I approach my priest with a penitent heart, and confess my sins, intending to reconcile with God and abandon my wrongdoing, my confession is absolutely protected. If I approach my priest unrepentantly, declaring crimes in progress and my intention to continue, my confession has no protection. My priest is permitted, even obligated, to warn the law.
If this holds for spouses or parishioners, how much more so for governments. Straying husbands and struggling sinners may do painful damage to those they love, surely. But few individuals have the power to order drone strikes with little to no legal review. Your spouse doesn’t have a fleet of stealth bombers capable of dropping thermonuclear payloads. Citizens must hold governments to account simply because governments are so damn big.
Nearly 3000 years ago, Samuel prophesied that any human king would inevitably demand the deference due only to God. In 1914, sociologist Émile Durkheim, an unbeliever himself, wrote that, as faith became increasingly distant from technological society, governments would accrue the forms of liturgy and holiness to themselves. With the pushback to today’s political scandals, we see both warnings come true. The final payout cannot advance free society.