One of the characteristic functions of modern government is to administer declarations of attachment. Many of these declarations are compulsory, and they span a wide range. In order to receive some social benefit-a license, citizenship, education, employment, a right to cohabit-one must declare one's allegiance to a person or entity. Declarations of attachment are often backed by the force of law. Membership in private organizations, including fraternities, religious groups, and clubs, may also be conditioned on compliance with requirements of this sort.

Compulsory oaths have been a prominent source of controversy in the latter half of the twentieth century. Consider, for example, recent debates over the pledge of allegiance, loyalty oaths, the marriage vow, and oaths of citizenship for new Americans. Civil libertarians have criticized compulsory declarations in some or all of these settings on the ground that they impose requirements of uniformity and obedience that are inconsistent with important principles of pluralism and individual freedom. Defenders of compulsory declarations respond that oaths serve important unifying, educative, and even celebratory functions, inculcating in participants a sense of the solemnity and importance of such central institutions as citizenship and marriage. In this view, otherwise plausible principles of freedom and pluralism should not be permitted to override the legitimate functions performed by compulsory oaths. Indeed, freedom and pluralism may ultimately depend on the social cohesion brought about by institutions that perform precisely those functions.

My goal in this essay is to explore the diverse social functions of compulsory declarations of attachment. The treatment will be tentative and speculative; it will also be largely descriptive rather than normative. I want to provide some preliminary answers to the following questions: What social tasks do compulsory declarations carry out? To what problems and needs, and to whose problems and needs, are they an attempted response?