Opinion: We Should Reconsider the Pledge of Allegiance

Otis Adams

Every school day, in public school classrooms across the country, students hear a ding from the intercom and a voice greets them from the overhead speaker. It might be the principal, vice principal, or a student who won the honor for good grades.

After morning announcements, the voice instructs everyone to stand, place a hand over their heart, and leads the school in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Doing so is required by law in 46 of our 50 states.

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.

The pledge was the result of a magazine’s marketing strategy, was authored by a racist and socialist Baptist preacher, and was modified in the 1950’s to become a required, public test of faith for kids across the country.

The Original Pledge

According to the Smithsonian, the first reciting of the pledge took place on October 21, 1892. That pledge looked a bit different.

I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the Republic for which it stands —
one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

The pledge was the eventual result of a marketing gimmick from Youth’s Companion magazine. Nathaniel Willis founded the magazine in 1827 and it enjoyed fantastic success until 1929. The idea behind it was to create a children’s magazine that was a mix of humor and useful knowledge, without a connection to Sunday School. At it’s height, it had a circulation of 500,000.

Contributing authors of Youth’s Companion included Jules Verne, Jack London, Theodore Roosevelt, and Louisa May Alcott.

The marketing gimmick had been a successful campaign to get kids to sell subscriptions to the periodical, U.S. flags being their reward. As the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the New World grew near, the magazine decided to expand the marketing campaign.

Youth’s Companion vowed to have a flag “over every public school from the Atlantic to the Pacific”. More than this, children across the country would salute it with an oath.

The Author of the Pledge

One of the writer’s at Youth’s Companion was the former Baptist preacher Francis Bellamy. He worked mostly in the promotions department and was given the job of making a patriotic campaign to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas.

While those in his Boston church were sometimes vexed by Bellamy’s socialist views, in the pages of the kids’ magazine he railed against Gilded Age capitalism.

One need of a pledge, he argued, was that “every alien immigrant of inferior race,” threatened American values. Having so many recite a pledge would safeguard, “the distinctive principles of true Americanism,” so that they, “will not perish as long as free, public education endures”.

Bellamy felt that so soon after the Civil War, the focus of the pledge ought to be allegiance. It took him about two hours to write the original pledge.

In 1923, Bellamy gloated about his pledge writing, “this little formula has been pounding away on the impressionable minds of children for a generation”.

By the 1940’s, with World War II testing the nation, many public schools made recitation of the pledge mandatory.

A Required, Public Test of Faith

The pledge had undergone a few alterations. For instance, the Daughters of the American Revolution, to outsmart tricky immigrants who might be secretly thinking of the flags they were born under while swearing their allegiance, decided that “my flag” should be changed to “the flag of the United States of America”.

The biggest change of substance came in the 1950's.

Reverend George Docherty, referencing the religion-backed monarchies of Europe, led a campaign to have “under God” added to the pledge. Americans by the millions, forgetting the disdain for monarchies Americans are supposed to have and the Separation of Church and State that has allowed our Constitutional government to outlast any others, agreed.

“I came from Scotland,” Reverend Docherty said, “where we said ‘God save our gracious queen, God save our gracious king’. Here was the Pledge of Allegiance and God wasn’t in it at all.”

We were also at the beginning of the Cold War, and many felt that adding the phrase would make the separation more clear between the United States and “Godless Communism”.

One of the most important sheep in Docherty’s flock on a February day in 1954 was President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He spoke convincingly about the merits of adding “under God” to the now required Pledge of Allegiance.

“An atheistic America is a contradiction in terms,” Docherty argued, and, making Jews and Muslims squirm a bit, he added, “If you deny the Christian ethic, you fall short of the American ideal of life.”

The same week of Docherty’s sermon, bills were introduced in Congress requiring the phrase be added. Eisenhower signed the act into law on June 14, 1954.

It should be remembered that Bellamy, who wrote the original pledge, opted to leave any reference to divinity out of it. Perhaps God just slipped the mind of the ordained Baptist minister as he wrote the pledge, or perhaps he left religion out of the oath of patriotic unity for a reason.

The Now Divisive Pledge of Unity

As was expected, challenges came quickly to the new law that added “under God” to a pledge that schoolchildren were mandated by law to recite daily.

It came first from the religious. Jehovah’s Witnesses argued that the reciting of the pledge violated their belief in a prohibition of venerating graven images.

In 1943, the Supreme Court decided that free speech allowed them to choose not to say the pledge and that no child can be compelled by law to recite it.

While slowing our nation’s decline into a theocracy is a positive development, this slightly misses the point. With the phrase “under God” in the pledge, a public test of faith is unavoidable. Either a child declares their good American standing to all their classmates, or they do not and everyone they spend their days with will notice.

A pledge that is meant to unite Americans has become transmuted into a public announcement of your personal religious beliefs. As though a scene from an Orwell novel — we will know who you are when you do, or do not, say the words.

In 2004, the Supreme Court avoided a decision on the matter. An atheist claimed that reciting the pledge in the public school was equal to the state requiring his kindergartner daughter to publicly express her belief or disbelief in God. Because the man was not married to the girl’s mother, who had custody, the Supreme Court dodged the case by saying he was not allowed to bring it on the girl’s behalf.

Those religious who view neutrality as persecution would put up a tremendous fight if the ideals of the original pledge were restored, adding more divisiveness to the story of this pledge of unity.

Even so, a pledge that alienates many Native Americans, agnostics, atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or the religious who wish to keep their relationship with God a private one should not be a part of school children’s daily lives. They should not feel that a public confession of belief is a prerequisite for loving America and it is not the government's place to enforce religious ideas.

Patriotism is in no way linked to a belief in God, and a public test of faith is antithetical to American ideals of the individual’s freedoms.

This pledge, written by an ad man to sell subscriptions for the magazine he worked for and to block the negative impact he felt lesser races might have on our country, needs to be reconsidered.

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Author of Lavatory Reader #1: This Road, now available on Amazon. Otis Adams is the author of three books and has won two dozen awards for his screenplays and short fiction. He writes regularly on Medium.com and can be contacted at pithbooks@gmail.com.

Columbia, MO

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