The Pledge of Allegiance

A couple of months ago, former national security advisor Michael Flynn made this comment at a rally: 

“If we are going to have one nation under God — which we must — we have to have one religion.  One nation under God, and one religion under God.”

Not only was this a supremely un-American thing to say as it directly contradicts the U.S. Constitution, it is unclear which religion Flynn was proposing (although we can guess it was Christianity).

This idea that we are ‘one nation under God’ comes from our Pledge of Allegiance.  So I did some digging.  Did you know that the original Pledge of Allegiance was written by Civil War veteran George Balch in 1887?  It read:

‘We give our heads and hearts to God and our country; one country, one language, one flag!’  (Wow!  I’m not sure where to start with that one!)

The Pledge as we know it came only a couple of years later in 1892 and was part of the same movement to have public schools hoist the flag over their buildings.  And it was actually composed by a local pastor!  How about that?!  

His name was Rev. Francis Bellamy.  Bellamy was a Baptist and an early advocate of Christian Socialism.  His sermons had titles like “Jesus the socialist,” “What is Christian Socialism?,” and “Socialism versus anarchy.”  He was asked to leave his church because of his anti-capitalist principles.  Despite his socialist views, however, he opposed immigration to this country for staunchly racist reasons.    

At the time he wrote the Pledge, he was living at the Malden home of James Upham, whose name should be familiar to those who drive the street from Route 1 to Main Street Melrose which bears his name.  There is some debate as to which of the two actually composed the Pledge, but most agree that Bellamy wrote it in Upham’s home and Upham promoted it. 

The original Pledge by Bellamy read:

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

Bellamy was a strong supporter of the separation of church and state and intentionally did not include the phrase “under God.”

That phrase was added during the anti-communist McCarthy era in congress (1954) when fear of Marxist ideas was running very high.  It came about through lobbying by the Catholic fraternal organization The Knights of Columbus; which had already added the phrase to the Pledge throughout its own organization.

Since then, many have sought to have the phrase removed because it is an affront to the separation of church and state and sails against the first amendment which protects against the establishment of a state religion.  All such legal challenges to the phrase have failed.

What has succeeded has been the legal right of people to opt-out of saying the Pledge.  This is largely for religious reasons since people of faith find their first and only allegiance to God rather than any nation’s flag.  Additionally, children are legally unable to give consent to such a pledge because of their age, and atheists, who do not believe in the “under God” phrase at all, cannot be compelled to recite the Pledge.  Still, the social pressure to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, especially in schools, is still extremely high.  

To be clear, the Pledge of Allegiance has its place.  It is a unifying call to patriotism.  I even agree that we are “one nation under God” just like every other nation but, given the ideals of our founders, the phrase has no place in the Pledge of Allegiance and its presence there is currently fueling a Christian nationalism that presents frightening prospects for our nation’s future. 

See you in church,

–Rev. Dominic