Freethought Almanac

Lighting a candle in toxic air.

September 8: Pledge of Allegiance … to God?

Pledge of Allegiance Published (1892)

It was on this date, September 8, 1892, that the issue of The Youth's Companion, containing the original version of the Pledge of Allegiance to the US flag, was published. The author, Francis Bellamy, was a Baptist minister and a Christian Socialist. The original pledge was 22 words and said,

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

Bellamy considered including the word "equality" in the pledge, but decided it would not be politically correct. His idea in the Pledge was to affirm loyalty to the United States, although the illegitimate insertion of the polarizing phrase "under God" was not added until 1954 – 62 years after the Pledge was written. Even discounting that, the Pledge itself constitutes a loyalty oath.

You could argue that swearing or affirming to your actions can legitimately be required of all citizens, else why be an American? But a loyalty oath such as the Pledge requires you to swear to a belief – a belief in God – which would make this "indivisible" nation divisible on religious lines.

The anti-communist witch-hunts of the 1940s and 1950s in the US made national loyalty an urgent concern. In 1947, President Harry Truman instituted government-wide loyalty oaths in Executive Order 9835. Truman was in part responsible for creating the very anti-Communist hysteria about which he later complained, when he criticized the House Committee on Un-American Activities. It may be plausible for a President to make such a public pronouncement:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

But one question remains: why is a loyalty oath necessary for an average citizen? If you're loyal, you may say it because you mean it; but you may refuse to say it because coerced loyalty is no loyalty at all. And if you really are a subversive, you wouldn't hesitate a second before lying – so what is the point?

In Howard Zinn's 1980 A People's History of the United States, Douglas Miller and Marion Nowack described Truman's rationale:

Between the launching of his security program in March 1947 and December 1952, some 6.6 million persons were investigated. Not a single case of espionage was uncovered, though about 500 persons were dismissed in dubious cases of "questionable loyalty." All of this was conducted with secret evidence, secret and often paid informers, and neither judge nor jury. Despite the failure to find subversion, the broad scope of the official Red hunt gave popular credence to the notion that the government was riddled with spies. A conservative and fearful reaction coursed the country. Americans became convinced of the need for absolute security and the preservation of the established order.

As Joseph Heller described the actions of Capt. Black in Catch 22:

"The important thing is to keep them pledging," he explained to his cohorts. "It doesn't matter whether they mean it or not. That's why they make little kids pledge allegiance even before they know what pledge and allegiance mean."

There is a chilling resemblance to the war on terrorism today. Perhaps the Pledge of Allegiance, written by a Socialist, adopted to oppose Communists, and now revived as an oath of loyalty to God and country, may not be enough!

Originally published September 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Comment on my Rant

On Thu, 11 Sep 2003, I received the following e-mail in response to my commentary:

Mr Meyer,

I am a law student in Australia who is studying the issue of freedom of religion.

I've just read your essay and was wondering if you have any comment on whether The Pledge, as modified on Flag Day, could potentially violate that part of the First Amendment which precludes the making of laws 'respecting the establishment of religion'?

I look forward to hearing from you.

[Name withheld].

Dear —,

I'm no lawyer, so this is only my opinion. By ruling on 26 June 2002 that the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional with the words "under God" in it – as the words have been for 49 of the Pledge's 111 years in existence – the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals was following the Constitution, as it is supposed to.

First, the Pledge is not a prayer – and people are not supposed to be pledging allegiance to God, as the Pledge implies. Second, the flap from US lawmakers was predictable and a sad spectacle of ahistorical political opportunism. One legislator in particular, Sen. Kit Bond, R-Missouri, who reacted "in anger and shock" to the ruling, needs a lesson in civics and US history.

"Our Founding Fathers must be spinning in their graves," said Bond on June 27 (2002). "This is the worst kind of political correctness run amok. What's next? Will the courts now strip 'so help me God' from the pledge taken by new presidents?"

First, our Founding Fathers deliberately (that is, by vote) kept mention of God out of the US Constitution, so it is doubtful that they would be "spinning in their graves" over the 9th Circuit decision. Second, there was no Pledge in the days of the Founding Fathers, anyway, as it wasn't written – by a Christian Socialist who didn't think to include God – until 1892.

Third, the courts can't strip "so help me God" from the oath taken by new presidents because it was never there in the first place. As the only oath specifically prescribed in the Constitution, it reads, "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

No God or Jehovah, no Jesus Christ, not even a "Creator," to which the Declaration of Independence – which has no force of law – refers.

Finally, tagging as "political correctness run amok" a carefully reasoned judicial decision is the worst kind of political pandering run amok. The "political correctness" label is a shibboleth used by conservatives to denigrate anything they don't like.

So, yes, in my non-lawyer's opinion, "the Pledge, as modified on Flag Day [1954], could potentially violate that part of the First Amendment which precludes the making of laws 'respecting the establishment of religion'." But actually saying so in this fearful, god-fearing country is not popular, so I predict a way will be found to square the unconstitutional recognition of God with the godless Constitution.

I hope this helps you.

-Ronald Bruce Meyer

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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January 15: Jean Meslier (1678)

It was on this date, January 15, 1678, that the French priest who is remembered as a lifelong atheist, Jean Meslier, was born. Meslier has been described as the first person in the West to write an entire text in support of atheism – discovered, redacted (to make him a Deist) and promoted by Voltaire. […]

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