A Pledge to Make Us Proud

"One nation under God" will remain in the Pledge of Allegiance that U.S. schoolchildren recite at the start of each school day. The U.S. Supreme Court on June 14 -- Flag Day -- declined to uphold a lower court ruling, which stipulated that the pledge violated the constitutionally mandated separation between church and state. The court based its decision on technicalities rather than on the constitutional merits of the argument, leaving the door open to future legal challenges to the Pledge of Allegiance.

Social conservatives -- especially the politically engaged Religious Right -- are ardent proponents of the Pledge of Allegiance and its religious reference. Some are even calling for a constitutional amendment to protect the pledge. It's all part of the "culture war" that has roiled the nation since the 1970s.

As this culture war continues and the Pledge of Allegiance remains a constitutional issue, it's worth recalling the history of the pledge.
A man of the cloth authored the pledge: In 1892 Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and educator, had a progressive political agenda when he penned the Pledge of Allegiance. As a Christian Socialist, Francis Bellamy was intent on pitting moral purpose (equality, liberty, and justice) against the prevailing power of the plutocrats and robber barons of his day. But he didn't see fit to mention God in this statement of civic values.

The Progressive Era of the 1890s marked the beginning of a power shift in the United States, when populist movements of farmers, small business owners, and workers demanded that local, state, and federal government protect them from the depredations of big business, banks, and railroads. Francis Bellamy believed that the progressive cause would be well served if the values of equality, justice, and liberty would be inserted into the daily school routine.

Americans never adopted the utopian socialist vision of Francis Bellamy or that of his cousin Edward Bellamy, the author of the popular utopian novels Looking Backward and Equality. But schools throughout the land did adopt Francis Bellamy's Pledge of Allegiance with its commitment to "liberty and justice for all."

Bellamy did initially plan to include "equality" along with liberty and justice in the pledge. Upon reflection, though, he thought that any mention of equality would doom the pledge. Then, as today, the concept of "equality" was strongly opposed by conservatives and racists (and many school superintendents) who resisted all demands for gender and racial equality. In the interests of political expediency, Bellamy dropped the controversial term from his draft, and his Pledge of Allegiance eventually became incorporated into the daily educational curriculum throughout the land.

It was not until 1954 that "under God" made its way into the Pledge of Allegiance, converting the pledge into "both a patriotic oath and a public prayer," as one historian observed. President Dwight Eisenhower authorized the change in response to a nationwide campaign led by the Knights of Columbus, a conservative Catholic men's club. As the U.S. appellate court noted in June 2003, the insertion of "under God" was to advance religion at a time "when the government was publicly inveighing against atheistic communism."

The culture war that pits conservatives against liberals, the right against the left, has for the past three decades reshaped politics in the United States, shifting most policy debate sharply to the right. The separation of church and state needs is a core attribute of our democracy that merits defense against the encroachments of the Religious Right.

But in the battle of values with the Religious Right and other social conservatives, this is one battle that is not worth fighting. Instead, this country's democratic and progressive traditions would be better served if more Americans proudly stood by the core values spelled out in the Pledge of Allegiance, and if we encouraged our children to help make the United States a nation that truly offers liberty and justice for all.

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