With Or Without “Under God,” the Pledge Is Still a Bad Idea
With or without the words “under God,” the Pledge of Allegiance is still a bad idea. Here’s why.
It was an American socialist—certainly no friend of the U.S. Constitution—who created the Pledge for a national magazine for young people published in Boston. Two liberal businessmen, Daniel Ford and James Upham, owned Youths’ Companion. In 1888 the magazine began a campaign to sell American flags to the public schools. By 1892 it had sold flags to about 2600 schools.
In 1891, Upham wanted to promote the use of the flag in the public schools during the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. That year the magazine hired a Baptist minister named Francis Bellamy to help it design a public relations campaign. Bellamy was the first cousin of the famous American socialist, Edward Bellamy. This was the same Edward Bellamy who in 1888 had published a novel entitled Looking Backward, which described the future United States as a regimented worker’s paradise where everyone has equal incomes and men are drafted into the nation’s “industrial army” at the age of 21, serving in jobs assigned to them by the state. Bellamy’s novel sold more copies than other any 19th century American novel except for Uncle Tom’s Cabin and inspired a movement of “Nationalist Clubs,” whose members wanted the federal government to nationalize the American economy.
Francis Bellamy was a staunch supporter of this movement and a vice president of its auxiliary group, the Society of Christian Socialists. As a minister he lectured and preached on the virtues of socialism and the evils of capitalism. In 1891 he was forced to resign from Bethany Baptist Church in Boston because of his socialist activities and joined the staff of Youths’ Companion.
By February of 1892, Bellamy and Upham had lined up the National Education Association to support Youths’ Companion as a sponsor of the national observance of Columbus Day along with the use of the American flag. By June 29, Bellamy and Upham had arranged for Congress and President Harrison to announce a national proclamation, making the public school flag ceremony the center of the Columbus Day celebrations for 1892. Bellamy, under the supervision of Upham, wrote the program for this celebration, including its flag salute, the Pledge of Allegiance. His version was:
I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands—one nation indivisible—with liberty and justice for all.
The original Pledge was recited while giving a stiff, uplifted right hand salute, identical to the Nazi gesture. Bellamy’s recommended ritual for honoring the flag read as follows:
At a signal from the Principal the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the Flag the military salute—right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it.... At the words, “to my Flag,” the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, towards the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.
This form of salute was discontinued during WWII for obvious reasons and replaced with today’s hand-on-heart gesture. The words “my flag” were changed to “the flag of the United States of America” because it was thought that children of immigrants might confuse “my flag” for the flag of their native land. The phrase “Under God” was added by Congress and President Eisenhower in 1954 at the urging of the Knights of Columbus.
Understood historically, the Pledge is nothing more than a slavish ritual of devotion to the state. Loyalty oaths to the state may have been tolerated in a place like Nazi Germany but they have no place in a free society like America. In fact, the entire Pledge should be repugnant to anyone who truly values “liberty and justice.” In a previous essay I noted:
It is almost a cliché to say that the Christian Right in America has engaged in statism by its almost blind allegiance to the Bush administration. Many prominent evangelical leaders have argued that the Republican Party is the only home for conservatives and is by nature a legitimation of constitutional ideology. Others have promoted it as a political resource for spiritual change. An objective analysis of the history of the party seems to suggest that it is neither.
The majority perspective current among evangelicals is one that both blesses and legitimizes the warfare-welfare state. This should not surprise us; this has been the dominant position of the church since the Constantinian settlement either through direct support or by default. At other times, however, the church—although usually only minority groups within the church—has rejected the status quo by affirming the rule of God, which more often than not has meant a renunciation of the existing social order.
If children are to take an oath of allegiance, they should pledge their allegiance to the U.S. Constitution and not to a piece of cloth. As our Founding Fathers stated over and over again, Americans were to be the masters of the Republic, not its subjects. The Pledge was written at a time when our country had begun to turn away from principles of federalism in favor of a nationalist ideology. It is a profound betrayal of the spirit of both the First and the Second American Revolutions.
Speaking personally, I cannot imagine why Christian parents would allow their children to bow before a symbol of raw, secular power. Indeed, I cannot understand why conservatives support the Pledge at all, with or without “under God.” If we are to pledge anything, let us pledge allegiance to the principles of freedom that inspired those who wrote our Constitution and who first bore our flag.
March 31, 2004
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com. His latest book, Why I Stopped Listening to Rush: Confessions of a Recovering Neocon, will be released this year.