For All the People (August 2003)

In 1892, Francis Bellamy wrote a flag salute for a quadricentennial Columbus Day celebration and called it the “Pledge of Allegiance.” His intent was to crystallize the best and most basic ideals of the United States. Drawing from Webster’s and Lincoln’s speeches about the indivisibility of the nation and from Jefferson’s Preface to the Declaration of Independence, he wrote: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Bellamy concisely stated our country’s guiding principles.

Over the years, two changes have been made to Bellamy’s original pledge. In 1924, the words of the pledge were altered to read “the flag of the United States of America”–over Bellamy’s objections.

In 1954, the phrase “under God” was added. Religion was enjoying a resurgence during the post-World War II era. The president at the time–Dwight D. Eisenhower–had only just joined a church in 1953. After the horrors of war, most Americans were ready for a more optimistic outlook on life. Television commercials proclaimed, “The family that prays together stays together”; ministers preached about God’s forgiveness in lieu of the fire-and-brimstone sermons of the past; and religious radio and TV shows were becoming popular.

In addition, there was a widespread distrust of the communist U.S.S.R.–an atheistic society. President Eisenhower was promising to contain this new threat to the God-fearing and democracy-loving world. But this religious renaissance was not all-inclusive. While many shared Eisenhower’s delight that “. . . millions of our school children will daily proclaim . . . the dedication of our Nation and our people to the Almighty,” our country was too religiously diverse for everyone to have shared in the jubilation.

In 2002, Michael Newdow of California filed a case against the United States, Congress, California, and two school districts and their officials because he did not want his daughter being taught religion in school. A lower court threw his case out. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Newdow. Justice Goodwin, writing for the majority, stated that “to recite the pledge is not to describe the United States; instead it is to swear allegiance to the values for which the flag stands: unity, indivisibility, liberty, justice and–since 1954–monotheism.”

But 24 hours later. the court put its decision on hold. The circuit court’s ruling raised the hackles of state representatives, U.S. senators, and the president, who could not understand the offensive nature of “one nation, under God.” As President Eisenhower said in 1954, “Recognition of the Supreme Being is the first, most basic expression of Americanism. Without God there could be no American form of government nor an American way of life.” His contemporary, Rev. George M. Docherty, held that while the First Amendment separated church and state, that separation should not also be “a separation of religion and life.”

The whole purpose of keeping our government secular, however, is to ensure religious freedom for all of our citizens. The inclusion of “under God” in our pledge validates only those people adhering to a monotheistic belief system. Even then, the term “God” may be deemed unsatisfactory by those who have a different moniker for their Supreme Being.

The Pledge of Allegiance represents a commitment to our country and not to a religious doctrine, vague as it may be. The theological aspect of the current pledge obscures its initial, essential purpose. Bellamy himself was a former Baptist minister and could easilyhave included a reference to God. The fact that he chose to focus solely on our nation as a secular entity reinforces the point that the pledge was not intended to have religious overtones. One of the most dearly held founding principles of our country was the separation of church and state. The pledge we make to our country’s ideals should certainly honor that separation.

Our American form of government was called a “Great Experiment.” Few people thought it would survive–even George Washington had his doubts. Yet here we are 227 years later, still striving to be Lincoln’s nation “of the people, by the people, for the people.” We have all disagreed with the actions of our leaders and fellow citizens at one time or another, but when we recite the pledge together we are united in a shared hope for our future. We are united by a love for our country and for the freedom it offers us all to live our lives as we choose in harmony with those around us. The belief in those qualities of liberty and freedom is what binds all U.S. citizens together. Liberty both defines and unites us–free speech, freedom of the press, freedom to peaceably assemble, freedom to petition the government, and freedom of religion. We have the freedom to worship as we see fit, praising one god, many gods, or no god at all. This freedom should be reflected in our pledge.

Before writing this essay I had never given much thought to the Pledge of Allegiance. After reading about its history and considering Bellamy’s intentions, I realized how significant the pledge can be in reminding us of all the virtues this country struggles to embody. “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Bellamy’s words are both powerful and personal in their original, unadorned state. The United States of America is the most diverse country in the world and it seems fitting that such a simple statement so well expresses the one allegiance that is universal to us all: not fealty to any particular dogma, but devotion to the country we share.

Aubrey is a graduate of Conlara School, Ann Arbor, Mich. She is most passionate about acting, singing, and her family and friends. She enjoys dancing, reading, and “leaving long voice-mail messages.” She will be attending Tisch School of the Arts at NYU this fall, where she will major in drama.

Freedom From Religion Foundation