A Fourth of July footnote:
Did you note, while listening to the chief justice administer the oath of allegiance to a group of new citizens, that the language had some distinctly odd passages? The line about renouncing fidelity to a foreign potentate: clear enough where that came from. The promise to support and defend the Constitution: fine. But to ''perform noncombatant service in the armed forces of the United States when required by the law''? And to ''perform work of national importance under civilian direction''? What could that possibly mean?
The language struck me not only as odd but as unfortunate. Naturalization is a solemn moment in the lives of, by now, millions of people, and here it turns out that they are speaking some words that few of them could possibly understand. One can imagine darker tragedies, but is it not a waste to make less than full use of a ceremony meant to bond a new citizen to his chosen land? Asking around after July 4, I discovered that others, too, were puzzled that immigrants were being asked to swear to an oath that was in part a mystery to them.
It seemed to me some redrafting of the oath was in order.
*Onward, to Washington lawyer Charles Gordon and his ''Immigration Law and Procedure'':
The oath opens a door that millions have ached to go through and is taken easily by almost everyone -- except for those who conscientiously object to military service and cannot in good faith pledge to ''bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law.'' In three cases decided between the world wars, a divided Supreme Court ruled that an alien who would not undertake to bear arms could not be naturalized. Only in 1946 were these decisions reversed.
Subsequently Congress expressly sanctioned a qualified oath for conscientious objectors. So now someone who satisfies the naturalization court that he is opposed to bearing arms because of religious training and belief can take an oath to perform noncombatant military service or civilian work of national importance. If he is opposed to all military service, he can simply pledge to perform civilian work, Gordon writes.
There is, in short, a perfectly good reason for the seemingly strange language in the oath. Actually, it's a marvelous reason. The language expresses a respect for individual sensibility that is the American essence and, one must hope, a leading reason why people wish to become Americans.
Nowhere perhaps is this spirit on sweeter view than in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' dissent in one of those prewar naturalization cases. Hungarian-born Rosika Schwimmer had said she would not be willing to take up arms for the United States because she believed that war would disappear and the impending destiny of mankind was to unite in peace.
Describing her as ''a woman of superior character and intelligence, obviously more than ordinarily desirable as a citizen,'' Holmes said he did not share her optimism or himself regard war as philosophically absurd. Some of her views might excite popular prejudice, he allowed, ''but if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought -- not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate. . . .'' He went on: ''I would suggest that the Quakers have done their share to make the country what it is, that many citizens agree with the applicant's belief, that I had not supposed hitherto that we regretted our inability to expel them because they believe more than some of us do in the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount.''
So there is something wrong in the oath of allegiance, but it is not that some of the language sounds alien. In fact the language is American in the best sense, but few people and certainly few immigrants are likely to come into naturalization court knowing enough history to understand all the words they are about to speak. The conscientious objectors among them may have inquired, but the others will likely be in the dark.
The court may waive the oath if it concludes a young child cannot understand it. To help adults understand it, why not explain it? The presiding judge could do it, or something. The oath is already a thing of pride, and this could add to the glow.