Pledging Allegiance

Many years ago, I met a guy about my age who was visiting mutual friends in the US from South Africa. He was studying architecture and we walked around Washington, DC together, pretty much looking at statues and buildings. He remarked that, compared to the other world capitals he’d visited, DC’s buildings were the most self-consciously monumental, or something like that.

He asked me why I thought that might be true.

And I said I thought it was because, relative to European cities, we had such a short history, we needed to create purposefully the gravitas their capitals had by virtue of their longevity. “So, it’s to cover over your insecurity, then?” he asked. “Yeah, basically.” I replied.

Reminds me of the time I visited the farm in Greece that’s been owned by my family for generations. While showing us around, my great-uncle George pointed at an old shed and said with a teasing laugh, “See that building? It’s older than your whole country.”

In 1892, as part of America’s public school celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the West Indies, Francis Bellamy, an American Christian Socialist, wrote the first pledge of allegiance and it went like this:

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

The pledge wasn’t adopted as any sort of nationwide standard until 1942. Since that time, the pledge of allegiance has undergone changes. The most significant being the addition of the phrase “under God,” as a contrast to “Godless communism,” in 1954.

The pledge, as most say it today, goes like this:

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 salute has also changed since the early days. The earliest version I could find appears in the top photo (above). A bizarre Nazi-esque salute was used in the 1940s (below). Today, while those in uniform hold a standard salute, the United States Flag Code calls for civilians to hold their right hand over the heart.

One might well ask why we Americans pledge our allegiance to a flag to begin with. I mean, specifically, why a flag? Why don’t we pledge our allegiance to the nation? The republic itself? Our form of government? Each other? Certain principles?

Why a flag? A flag is a tangible thing. It is just dyed cloth. Thinking people can’t really pledge their allegiance to a piece of cloth.

The flag, and not some more suitable abstract concept, was purposefully chosen by Bellamy as the object of our collective allegiance, because in 1892, the country, then less than 30 years after the Civil War, was deeply divided over very significant matters. Bellamy wanted to highlight a certain set of commonly held American principles without explicitly listing them because there wasn’t the consensus on them necessary to support a common list. One example: he initially included the term “equality” in his pledge but decided against it because the country wasn’t fully behind equality for people of all races.

I believe we still use pledge to a flag today for much the same reason. If we pledged to a certain set of commonly-held principles, what would those be? These days, I can’t imagine reaching any level of national consensus on much. So, we’ll continue this bizarre practice of swearing our loyalty to cloth. And yet, because of our national insecurities, of which there are legion, we cling with a death-grip to anachronisms like the pledge, and simultaneously use it like a war club to attack those who don’t publicly exhibit adequate patriotism.

The pledge of allegiance has become little more than the equivalent of the red, white and blue Dacron bunting that gets unpacked on holidays to festoon sales at shopping malls. I suggest we scrap it now and have a real national dialog on what matters: what it really means to be an American and what we stand for as a people.

I’d pledge allegiance to that.

10 thoughts on “Pledging Allegiance

  1. With all due respect, if you haven’t stood in a public hall reconstituted as a court and repeated the pledge of allegiance hand-on-heart with 3000 other former emigrants at your naturalization ceremony, you don’t even see the flag for the tears of joy, of relief, of delight, of triumph all related to what VS Naipul called The Enigma of Arrival prickling the corner of your eyes, and your chest hammering with, yes, love. You repeat the words and your voice trembles. On that day, 3000 other voices like mine. And millions before. We know it’s not (just) about a piece of cloth, whatever those who’ve not had the enormous joy of choosing to be American think. It’s not a visual thing, my friend, it’s internal. In my case, 11 years ago, I walked from San Francisco’s Masonic Hall into a cloudless blue sky and above me, occupying the space with the spire of the the great church opposite, reared a billboard. It invited me to “Be All that You Can Be” — I took that message for my own. In retrospect, it was that more than all the flags that festooned the interior Masonic Hall behind me that signaled to me what it is to be American. Your intention is noble, as always, and the pledge of allegiance is only one level below holy writ for me. It is bizarre to simply relate to a flag, I agree, however symbolic, but that isn’t the sum total of the pledge — it includes the republic, the nation, God, oneness among many, liberty and justice for all. Yes, yes, I know, we go astray in terms of justice but we still strive for it. BTW, your Greek relatives’ point about his barn being older than America should not obscure the fact that it’s taken Greece 5000 years to come from the stone age to modernity (including the current euro crisis) and it’s taken us some 400. Now that’s a contrast. That said, I agree with your idea for a dialogue, and this is my response. G’day, mate.:)

    1. Thank you, Chris, for reminding me that rituals have power beyond their actual scripts. I do know how emotional – and singular – becoming an American citizen is for immigrants. [Other nations, as you know, don’t have that moment when new citizens declare themselves a part of the enterprise.] I’m not that far removed myself, after all, from that process. And I’ve seen those emotional moments firsthand. I continue to believe, however, that our lack of historical understanding and our lack of explicitness about what makes us American in the first place, are papered over by the pledge and other things (‘God Bless America’ sung at baseball games in addition to our national anthem? Enough is enough, already.) we accept as sacrosanct. Of course everyone knows they’re not really bowing to the literal flag, but I’d bet you’d find very little agreement or shared understanding among Americans about what that piece of cloth actually represents for them, or us.
      And I understand very well that my relative’s teasing comments came mostly from a place of envy and uncertainty. That said, I also know that, especially in international relations, we typically feel like the younger brother who feels he has a whole lot more to prove, precisely because he is younger. But those feelings are exhibited in other ways too, as my South African friend pointed out.
      As always, I appreciate your thoughtful comments, even if we happen to disagree.

      1. Thanks for expanding, Brent. In respect of shared understanding among Americans about what the flag represents, I think the diversity of views is precisely what makes America what it is — tolerant (don’t despair gay & lesbian community, we’ll get there) and diverse. I’m not aware of any other country as open to accepting newcomers as we are in the U.S. Canada may come closest, but Australia doesn’t, nor India. One thing I respect about the flag is the annual effort to pass a law through Congress criminalizing desecration of the flag. Each year, it is defeated (often by a close and closing margin) by those who consider the Bill of Rights protection of freedom of speech, which includes the right to trample the flag, as the Supremes have judged. The implication for me is that the flag represents the right to freedom of speech, and the blood of those who’ve died defending that right. Thanks for being a guy you want around when things go south — or is that South? LOL

    2. Naturalization, a one-time oath, is great. But the debate about the Pledge is the daily, robotic recitation by children too young to understand the words and who are here by accident of birth, not by choice. A pledge that seems to be good for only 24 hours before it requires renewal. That’s indoctrination, my man.

      If immigrants were told they would be reciting the Pledge daily in-front of a government official like little kids are made to do, would they still find it so freeing?

  2. I remember studying “flag desecration” cases in law school. The courts’ choice of descriptive verb — desecrate — tells you that the courts have long recognized the flag as a secular, sacred symbol. Discussions in law school always separated those of us who thought only the founding principles to be worth revering, and others who saw the flag itself as deserving its own constitutional protection. I understand the latter view, but it FEELS almost un-American to me.

  3. Good post. They should stop saying the Pledge of Allegiance because the Pledge was the origin of the Nazi salute and Nazi behavior (see the work of the historian Dr. Rex Curry). It is so funny that journalists in the USA do not have the guts to mention the putrid history of the Pledge. Domestic news outlets definitely will never post an historic photograph or video of the early Pledge’s stiff-armed salute. Atheists are also brainwashed so that they only complain about two words. The pledge is brainwashing. Articles on the Pledge of Allegiance demonstrate that reporters have been brainwashed to not address certain topics about the Pledge and its history. The pledge was written by an American National Socialist in 1892 and used for three decades before it was picked up by German National Socialists and others. It might be a great idea in that it provides students with a daily opportunity to sit out the pledge and show contempt for the USA’s police state. Students can remind the adults that other Americans have given their lives and freedom and made sacrifices so that others can refuse the daily robotic brainwashing in government schools (socialist schools). The two-word deification is only a tiny part of the pledge’s horrid problems. Remove the pledge from the flag. Remove the flag from schools. Remove schools from government. Stop the desecration of students and schools.

    1. Francis:
      Thank you for your response to my post. Although its origin was rooted in American xenophobia, itself a response to contemporary waves of immigration, I do not see the pledge as a significant evil in our society, as you seem to. My major objection is that is masks differences about our beliefs regarding the true nature of American character. And I cannot agree that the pledge formed the basis of National Socialism in Germany [The photo of schoolkids doing the stiff-armed salute is from 1942.]. Further, I also cannot agree that its purpose, especially as actually practiced today, is brainwashing. [See previous posts about citizenship ceremonies, etc.]

      1. Though a little overbearing in tone, the facts of Francis’ post are right on.

        Francis Bellamy was a former Baptist minister who preached that Jesus was a socialist and advocated income taxation, central banking, nationalized education, nationalization of industry, and other tenets of socialism. His challenge was how to replace the federalist view of the country (where states and individual rights were sovereign) with a nationalist one that would pave the foundation for a central socialist government. Re-education of the public would prove difficult. But if American youth could to be taught “loyalty to the state”, it would pave the way for the socialist utopia that was described in his famous socialist cousin Edward Bellamy’s book, ‘Looking Backward”.

        The place to start would need to be primary education. The public schools could be used teach blind obedience to the central state. The opportunity to write a children’s oath that would promote flag worship (and sales) was just what he needed to begin re-directing the citizenry’s loyalty. So it was that, in 1892, Bellamy came to write the original Pledge of Allegiance: A universal tool for inducing children to swear their loyalty to the concept of an American nationstate. The “one nation, indivisible” wording was especially important to Bellamy for achieving his vision of socialism through a consolidated, monopoly government. To drive home the socialist goals, he ended it with a call for “liberty and justice.” He had considered adding the other socialist bywords, “fraternity and equality,” but knew that state superintendents of education on his committee were against equality for women and African Americans and would oppose it.

        A “National Public School Celebration” was promoted to government officials to coincide with the 400th anniversary celebration of Columbus. It was the first national propaganda campaign on behalf of the Pledge of Allegiance. It was a massive campaign that involved government schools and politicians throughout the country. To gain their cooperation, the program lauded government schools, while private schools, especially parochial ones, were criticized.

        Students were taught to recite the Pledge with their arms outstretched, palms down and then up. This was the custom in American public schools from the turn of the twentieth century until Hitler began using it to drill loyalty into his followers. He got it from the Italian fascists, who much admired – you guessed it – American schoolchildren doing it. Around 1950, public school officials suddenly decided that the salute was in bad taste and changed it to the familiar hand-over-heart salute.

        If you want to see what the original vision of indoctrination looked like go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bellamy_salute. If that doesn’t give you pause…

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