Friday, June 14, 2013

Sacred Vows to a Secular State

President Barack Obama
After NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed America’s unprecedented digital data mining operations last week, predictable accusations took flight. Congressman John Boehner and Senator Dianne Feinstein, hardly ideological coevals, both called Snowden a “traitor,” a world hardly supported by the constitutional definition of treason. But one particular expression has gained traction that reveals frightening assumptions under current national policy.

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.

Edward Snowden
American society has grown accustomed to use of religious language in public life. We accept the blurry line between knowing when to stand or kneel in church, and knowing when to salute the flag or rise for the national anthem. And for good reason: while faith addresses relationships with God, religion addresses relationships with each other. Governmental pseudo-religion binds the community together. But official religious trappings do not make the state 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.

Bradley Manning
Requiring citizens to shield crime behind “sacred vows” stinks of the hypocrisy that plagues the Catholic Church’s sex scandals. The Church uses its simple physical mass and holy purpose to squelch ordinary believers when they protest injustice. But the church cannot claim holiness while nurturing venality, as recent outrage has affirmed. The Church, like the government, must uphold its own ideals if it expects its vows to mean anything.

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.

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