Recently I attended my son’s installation ceremony as a member of the student government at his elementary school. The passage into office was marked by a series of oaths in which students made vows to uphold the integrity of their charges and the duties that flowed from those vows. In the ancient Roman world, the term most employed to refer to the civic relationship to which such vows bound a person was pietas.
Following Cicero, Ambrose of Milan called pietas the foundation of all the virtues because it embodied the affections and vows that grounded all virtue. As he notes, “From the beginning of life, when understanding first begins to be infused into us, we love life as the gift of God, we love our country and our parents; lastly, our companions, with whom we like to associate. Hence arises true love, which prefers others to self, and seeks not its own, wherein lies the pre-eminence of justice.” Pietas concerned the various relationships that humans entered into because of their loves and the duties that flowed from those relationships. A pious person was one who took seriously the ties that bind humans by honoring his vows that bound him to God, his family, and his country. Justice takes shape in the context of honoring those vows and duties to one another. For this reason, pietas was closely associated with fides because fidelity is the shape that vows take when honored, creating the context for just relations.
When Augustine addresses the issue of marriage, he does so within the context of the permanent vow that seals two persons and binds male and female together. The bonds of kinship flow first from the vows that two persons make to one another, without which biological connections cannot be formed. This implies that sex is no mere physical act performed solely for the sensory stimulation it brings. Rather, it is a binding action that seals and creates bonds of kinship. It is unitive and procreative. Consensual sex occurs in the context of a prior vow to be always and forever bound, and of the duties associated with such a vow. A pious husband or wife is one who sees those vows through to the end, recognizing that marriage in all of its risks and rewards cannot succeed without such a commitment. Of course, one does not make such a vow apart from love’s arrow, which prompts individuals to move out ecstatically and unite. Yet, the vow that sparks fidelity stabilizes the flights of amor, shaping them into a more permanent union. This holds true for citizens as much as for spouses.
Augustine argues that not even adultery breaks the union created by the vow of love and to love. He calls marriage a sacrament in part by playing on the meaning of oath embodied in the term sacramentum. Baptism is once and for all because God pledges himself to the soul and imprints himself on the person. It is the sealing of vows. A person who leaves the faith “will never lose the sacrament of rebirth, even if he or she is never reconciled, because God never dies.” Marriage is like this. Two persons imprint upon one another, creating a personal and social bond through mutual vows. As a form of exile, adultery may sever the union in irreconcilable ways, but even in its exilic state the covenant still held between Israel and God, and it still holds for the two spouses. The two spouses are indelibly marked by one another and the vows they took. Severe acts such as adultery, by their very nature, break oaths, leaving an empty husk, but this husk, this relational imprint, remains.
The making of vows occurs in a sacred context. Lactantius was correct when he suggested contra Cicero that religio concerns religare, which is to bind oneself to God. With their use of symbols and symbolic actions, the liturgical element of all ceremonies reveals the intimate association between religion and public oath-taking. Since an oath is a solemn act of binding oneself to a series of duties commensurate with the new relationship that is being formed, it occurs under the sacred canopy of creation. We bind ourselves by all that is holy to express how seriously we take the commitment. It is a fundamental human impulse to ground our vows in something greater than ourselves, which carries with it connotations of worship. There has always been a close connection between worship, veneration, reverence, and honor. They flow along a continuum—with worship expressing vows to God, veneration and reverence vows to one another, and honor the duties that relate to God and neighbor. These are the ties that bind.
Preserved and passed along in the church, the world of Roman pietas remains with us in the vows taken before we enter a form of public service, whether it is the military, government, or something else. No-fault divorce and the severance of children from the definition of marriage have already created a marriage culture that eats away at the ties that bind humans. The question is whether we can continue to evacuate the meaning of oaths, honor, and duty—pietas—and maintain the social cohesion necessary for society to function as a whole. This is what makes Donald Trump such a precarious candidate. His Machiavellian approach to life threatens to destroy what little remains of the oath-making we hold dear. One cannot make America great by trampling the sacredness of the vows that bind the nation together. What links Trump’s past willingness to use and then abandon women to his willingness to use and abandon business partners is his refusal to honor the sacredness of the ties that bind society together. If the past is prologue, one has to wonder whether the oath of office for the presidency will be viewed any differently.
My son recently pledged to do his duty as a member of the student government at his school. He pledged himself by lighting a candle as a symbol that he would not allow his duty to wane. His honor is now at stake in that pledge. What happens to a world without oaths and honoring the duties that flow from them? We break the ties that bind, and when we do, we cease to be a family, a nation, a people.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.