“True patriotism hates injustice in its own land more than anywhere else.” – Clarence Darrow
by Steve Major
Last year the American Humanist Association launched a groundbreaking lawsuit in Massachusetts challenging the phrase “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.
This is not the first time that a suit has been brought against the Pledge of Allegiance. In the past, atheist groups have sued the federal government to remove the phrase based on the separation of church and state clause in the first amendment. This case, on the other hand, is being filed on the state level, using a law contained in the Massachusetts state constitution guaranteeing its residents freedom from religious discrimination. Laws like that exist in about a dozen US states; and a victory in Massachusetts would pave the way for similar state by state victories all around the country.
Therefore now seems like an excellent time to recall the winding, undignified history of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Most Americans assume that the Pledge of Allegiance sprang full born from Betsy Ross’ lips as she made the final stitch on the first American Flag. In fact, not only did Betsy Ross not have anything to do with making any flags, first, American or otherwise; it was over a hundred years after that fictitious day that the first of several incarnations of the Pledge of Allegiance came to be.
The Pledge of Allegiance was written by a Socialist Baptist Minister named Edward Bellamy in 1892 for a magazine contest. That magazine, The Youth’s Companion, was looking for a gimmick to increase circulation and figured that if they could commission something that would become routine in public schools, that would help promote their image.
Bellamy’s version of the Pledge of Allegiance went thusly:
“I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
He had originally wanted to end the pledge with “equality and fraternity for all”… but those around him felt that it might inadvertently promote extending equality to black people and women, so he went with the patriarchally friendly “liberty and justice” instead.
The right wing Catholic organization The Knights of Columbus, teamed up with The Youth’s Companion and successfully petitioned president Benjamin Harrison to have the new pledge associated with Columbus day, and the recitation of it in public schools became the centerpiece of the holiday celebration.
In 1923 The National Flag Conference called for the phrase “my flag” to be changed to “the flag of the United States” so that any recent immigrants reciting the pledge would not be confused and assume they were swearing loyalty to their old flag rather than the red, white and blue one in front of them. The following year the words “of America” were added in for additional clarification.
And so it was that from 1924 to 1954 the Pledge of Allegiance went as follows:
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Personally, I like it. I still think that “equality” was a better choice than “liberty”, but all things considered it was a darn good oath.
In 1948 Louis A. Bowman, Chaplain of the Illinois Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, had the bright idea of adding “under God” into the pledge. This came from a misinterpretation of a line from the Gettysburg Address which Lincoln had ad-libbed into his speech. Lincoln had used the phrase “under God” in the sense of “God willing” and not, as Bowman assumed, to mean “in deference to God, and under his protection.”
The Knights of Columbus thought this was an awesome idea, began using it at all their meetings, and petitioning President Truman to make the addition official.
At one point Truman had a meeting to discuss adding both “under God” and “love” to the Pledge so that it would have read:
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with love, liberty and justice for all.”
Ha! What a ridiculous pledge that is! Totally childish and imbecilic. Truman declined, and the Knights had to wait one whole year for Dwight Eisenhower to take office.
It was now 1954, at the height of McCarthyism, and politicians were keen to prove how not-communist they were. Eisenhower had just been baptized a year earlier and was particularly eager to demonstrate his god loving bona fides to the American people.
And so at the national prayer breakfast, sitting in a booth once sat in by Abraham Lincoln, Eisenhower listened to a sermon in which the pastor informed the American People that our Pledge was Generic! Uninspired! Why, if you changed the name in the middle of it, it could belong to any old country! It might even belong in a GODLESS, HEATHEN, COMMUNIST country like the USSR! What makes us different than our sworn enemies? he asked: none other than our love and devotion to God, and the sweet cleansing morality that such devotion implies. “[The pledge] was missing the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life.” And what better way to convey that definitive factor to the world and at home than by including “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance!
Eisenhower was converted, and the very next day found a congressman to introduce a bill to that effect.
And so we have the Pledge as it stands today:
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
In a speech, Eisenhower stated “In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.”
There are a couple problems here.
One, of course, is that we are no longer fighting against the godless communists; now we’re fighting religious fanatics. So that’s kind of awkward.
But comparisons between the hate-spewing, misogynistic, religious fanatics here in the US and the hate-spewing, misogynistic, religious fanatics we’re at war with overseas is a topic for another article.
The real issue, and the one at the heart of the lawsuit in Massachusetts, is that we’re not a Christian nation; we’re not even a religious nation; we’re a tapestry of different beliefs, and the nonreligious have just as much claim to their rights and protections as everyone else; including the right to express patriotism without compromising our commitment to reason and nontheism.
Steve Major is the development associate for the American Humanist Association