Oaths of office are strangely ubiquitous in liberal-democratic regimes. They bind office-holders to their duties of office, but they do so by invoking divine or religious sanction for the performance of those duties. This divine witness to the oath of office appears to stand in as a guarantor of the political order, but also looms large as an authority that is separate from, and in some sense stands above, the political order. This opens up the possibility that this other sovereign may make moral demands that supersede those of the political order and the duties incumbent upon the office holder. This is the paradox of the oath of office. It both guarantees the performance of official duties and subjects the content of those duties to external judgement. It is a paradox embedded in the very nature of the oath of office, which captures within its short compass the very large question of the relationship between religious conviction, moral principle and political power. Through a study of the use of oaths in our political systems (including their secular adaptation, the affirmation of office), much light can be shed on the nature of faith in public office.
24 November 2015
'Faith in Public Office: The Meaning, Persistence and Importance of Oaths' by Nicholas Aroney comments