Thanks to another pro football season, America’s allegiance to its flag is once again called into question. My wife and I chatted with our German exchange student recently, asking whether her own country found patriotism so controversial. To this she said, “You Americans are considered very patriotic people. We Germans not so much; perhaps, because of Hitler in our past”. I was a little taken back by that comment. Americans can point to shameful events in our colorful – albeit brief – history, and yet; we still sing the anthem and stand for the flag. Well, most of us.
This week in Colorado, primary and secondary schools begin another year of formal education. The setting is not so different from schools I attended. The classrooms are laid out the same (technology aside). The cafeterias offer up borderline-edible food. And the students – every weekday morning – stand, face the flag, place their right hands over their hearts, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Forty-six of America’s fifty states mandate the practice. Congress opens its sessions with the Pledge, as do countless other government and private meetings across the land. Another day begins in America.
The Pledge has a rich history for a phrase spoken (or sometimes sung) in less than fifteen seconds. It was based on Captain George T. Balch’s Civil War-era pledge: We give our heads and hearts to God and our country; one country, one language, one flag! The version we use today – reworded by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy, was first published in the children’s magazine The Youth’s Companion in 1892 (albeit with simpler wording). The Pledge was also first used in public schools on October 12th of that year, coincident with the opening of the Chicago World’s Fair. The Pledge was designed to generate patriotism in young people, at a time when this kind of energy was on the decline. Sounds like something we need just as much today.
The original version of the Pledge stated: “...allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands… ” The change in 1923 to today’s version: “… allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and the Republic for which it stands…”, was a nod to America’s immigrants, so as not to deny loyalty to birth countries. Finally, the phrase “under God” was added in the 1950’s, and formally adopted on Flag Day (June 14th) of 1954. It was also at this time students began the everyday reciting of, as President Eisenhower referred to it, “…a dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.”
Along with saying the Pledge and standing for the flag, America’s students “place their right hands over their hearts”. This gesture also has a history. In lieu of a military salute (reserved for those in the Armed Forces), students originally stretched out their right hands towards the flag, palms down, ending the Pledge with palms up. But the practice was associated with the Nazi salute and quickly abandoned, in favor of the hand-over-heart (or cap over left shoulder) we use today.
To no one’s surprise, America’s Pledge of Allegiance (almost unique among countries) is not without controversy. Since 1940, there have been at least a dozen high-profile legal challenges. A few target the practice itself, claiming a violation of the First Amendment. But most target the use of the words “under God”, in conflict with the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause (freedom of religion). None of these suits succeeded, with the typical defense, “…the [Pledge’s] words represent a patriotic (not religious) exercise…”, and [to atheists], “…participation in the pledge is voluntary.”
Three years ago, in the most recent defense of the Pledge, New Jersey Judge David F. Bauman declared, “As a matter of historical tradition, the words under God can no more be expunged from the national consciousness than the words In God We Trust from every coin in the land, than the words so help me God from every presidential oath since 1789, or from the prayer that has opened every congressional session of legislative business since 1787.” Amen to that, David.
Aretha Franklin – America’s indisputable “Queen of Soul” – died last week after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer. Aretha’s most famous lyric was undoubtedly, “…all I’m askin’ is for a little respect…”. No coincidence; America’s flag makes the same request. The Pledge is a voluntary act – sure – but who’s going to argue with, “…liberty and justice for all”?
Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and from Erik Larson’s novel, “The Devil in the White City”.