Friday, June 10, 2011

Under God? How the Pledge of Allegiance Came To Be

For generations, countless American school children—scores, hundreds, thousands, who knows?—have been reciting, every morning perhaps, an oath of allegiance to a dark and despicable power. (Maybe they’ve been brainwashed; or maybe they have succumbed to subliminal and immoral messages from television or movies or rock and roll music or something like that.) How else can you explain the oath of allegiance that these countless school children have offered all these years? To wit:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic Four Witches Stand, one nation…” and so on…

Or maybe it was the Republic of Forwidgetstan, somewhere out near Afghanistan or Kazakhstan or This-or-That-stan, out in Central Asia someplace…

When he was in elementary school, Frank Hall, who was minister of the Unitarian Universalist church in Westport, Connecticut, used to sit next to a kid named Richard Sands—who was a big kid, and the son of the town’s truant officer, all of which made him seem kind of important in the eyes of a third or fourth grader. So, every morning, during the Pledge of Allegiance, young Frank used to say: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for Richard Sands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

When the courts (supposedly) threw “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance, newspaper columnist Frank Cerbino has offered a few suggestions for what might replace it. How about “one nation under appreciated” he suggests (after all, we could all identify with that in one of our whinier moods, right?). Or how about a simple statement of geography, like “one nation, under Canada”? Or maybe, to be totally honest, “one nation, under surveillance”?

A humor website, Satirewire, goes on and suggests corporate sponsorship for the Pledge of Allegiance. That seems to be the way so many things are going this day. Why not corporatize the Pledge of Allegiance, then? We could have slogans like: “One nation, 24,000 Starbucks, indivisible, with lattes and frapuccinos for all.” The people at Satirewire claim to quote McDonald’s CEO Jack Greenberg as saying:

“The phrase ‘under God’ clearly violates the First Amendment separation of church and state. However, there is nothing in the Constitution that separates chicken and state, and that’s why we’re proposing ‘One nation, six Chicken McNuggets and a medium Coke, all for $1.99.’”

And Satirewire also quoted former President Bush as saying: “Well, I’ll be! I always thought it said ‘One nation, we are God…’”

So it was that on June 19, 2002—just a few days after Flag Day--  the three judges of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California ruled that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance rendered the Pledge unconstitutional because it violated the separation of church and state.

The case had been brought by Michael Newdow of Sacramento, an avowed atheist, who argued that his second-grade daughter shouldn’t be forced to recite something which included the “G”-word. “Nobody should be forced to feel like an outsider,” Newdow said. The judges of the Ninth Circuit agreed. Compelling children to say “one nation under God,” wrote Judge Alfred Goodwin, was just as objectionable as forcing them to recite one nation under Jesus, Allah, Vishnu, Zeus, or even “one nation under no god”.

The official reaction, of course, was immediate and irate. “Ridiculous!” said President Bush. “Nuts!” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. “Senseless!” said Senator Joe Lieberman. “Stupid!” said Minority Leader Trent Lott (always a man of such great eloquence). So much for reasoned discourse from our elected leaders. Hours after the ruling (it’s amazing how fast Congress can act when it wants to) the Senate passed a resolution (99 to 0) to defend “under God”. Judges who made such decisions, Senator Lott said, were “bad for America”; there was even, in some more extreme circles, talk of impeachment.

House Republican whip Tom DeLay said: “It is a sad that at a time when our country is coming together, this court is driving a wedge between us with their absurd ruling.”

Personally, I prefer the more reasoned reaction of the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, William Sinkford. After the ruling, Dr. Sinkford said:

“America is becoming increasingly religiously pluralistic. For many, the language of God is an affirmation, but that language does not resonate with all Americans. The ruling… raises questions about what it means to be an American, to be patriotic. The question is not what metaphor we use for the holy; the question is what commitment we make to liberty and justice for all.”

If there’s one thing history teaches, it's that it’s not our words and our posturing which make us great as a nation. It’s our actions.
Liberty and justice for all-- that was, certainly, the original purpose of the Pledge of Allegiance, which has a fascinating history of its own. (A history too often overlooked or ignored in the brouhaha following the Ninth District Court’s decision.)

The Pledge was written in Boston in the large red brick office building on the corner of Columbus Avenue and Berkeley Street (that’s one of those little bits of trolley driver’s lore that I picked up during my brief time as a Boston tour guide). The author was a Methodist minister named Francis Bellamy, who was one of the city’s leading proponents of Christian Socialism. Rev. Bellamy was an outspoken advocate of economic justice and social activism—so much so that he was fired from his ministry at one of Boston’s Methodist churches. But in 1892, he found a job as a staff writer for The Youth’s Companion, a large-circulation periodical for young people, very popular at the time.

He was also part of a national committee of educators and community leaders working on a suitable observance of the 400th anniversary of the first voyage of Christopher Columbus. It was to commemorate that occasion that the Pledge of Allegiance first appeared in the October 1892 issue of The Youth’s Companion.

In addition to celebrating Columbus, Bellamy would write years later—by which time the Pledge had acquired a life of its own and had become a staple of school and civic gatherings across the country-- that he also had the unity of the American nation so soon after the close of the Civil War (less than 30 years before) in mind. In its first publication, the Pledge had read:

“I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands: one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Bellamy (good socialist that he was) also said that he had also wanted to include the word “equality”—as in, “one nation, indivisible, with liberty, justice, and equality for all.” But the editors of the magazine thought that including “equality” might be too controversial; it sounded like it gave support to the efforts of women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others to get the vote for women (which was, indeed, Bellamy’s intent, at least in part). So, “equality” was dropped. A month after the original publication of the Pledge, the editors of The Youth Companion changed Bellamy’s words slightly as well. “My flag” became “the flag” and the word “to” was added before the words “the Republic”, so that the first line now read:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands…”

A few years later, early in the 20th Century, the words “of the United States of America” were added as a “clarification”, it was said, for newly arrived immigrants who might not know to which flag they were pledging allegiance.

Much to his chagrin, Rev. Bellamy’s private statement of the faith of the individual in the deeper principles of America had become a mass public oath, insuring loyalty of all citizens to the government of the United States. During the Second World War, the Pledge acquired legal standing when Congress included it as part of a code covering the country’s symbolic emblem.

After the initial changes had been made, Bellamy’s words were to remain unaltered for fifty years or so. But then, a larger, even more intrusive change was made in 1954. In that year, at the height of the McCarthy anti-Communist hysteria, prodded by lobbying from the staunchly anti-Communist, heavily-Catholic Knights of Columbus, as well as from the socially conservative Daughters of the American Revolution, President Eisenhower signed a bill adding those two little words—“under God”—to the Pledge of Allegiance.

In this way, proponents of the change argued, America would be differentiated from those “Godless Communists” in Russia and elsewhere, who were plotting our nation’s demise. It would also be a handy tool, they said, for “smoking out” Communists who would (supposedly) refuse to take a pledge which included mention of “God” in it. (Of course, this reasoning ignores one of the most fundamental political truths of our time, which is that, quite simply, that Communists lie, cheat, and steal with the best of ‘em, and would happily say anything—including “under God”-- if it served their interests.)

So, in spite of the fact that generations of American young people had done just fine reciting a Pledge which included no reference to God; in spite of the fact that the American republic had survived just fine as, simply, “one nation, indivisible”—the words “under God” were added, unquestioned (it was supposed) until the ruling of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2002.  

It was during the McCarthy period, too, that our national motto was officially changed, from “E pluribus unum” (“Out of many, one.”) to “In God we trust.”-- once again, to differentiate “us” from those who “didn’t believe”. It’s interesting to note that in both of these cases—for both the Pledge and the motto-- statements emphasizing American unity were, in fact, undermined by additions which sought to divide, separate, and differentiate.

Perhaps adding a little history, rather than hysteria, to our national discussion such issues can give us a little more perspective, and perhaps to remember that truly being a nation “under God” isn’t just about saying the words or wrapping ourselves in the flag. It’s about remembering the words of the ancient prophets:

To loose the bonds of injustice,
To undo the thongs of the yoke.
To let the oppressed go free,
It’s about doing the hard work that needs doing truly to build a land of liberty and justice for all.

1 comment:

  1. What a great idea, Jeff, to go back to where it started, and see that deleting a reference to God that might be mixing church and state isn't unheard of. I wonder if we can apply that to the present political scene, where mixing church and state appears to be one of our biggest problems just now.