On the widespread fundamental inaccuracies about an emblematic American text.
A few years back, my younger son’s preschool class—made up of kids between 3 and 4 years old, not surprisingly—learned to say the Pledge of Allegiance every day. I didn’t have a particular problem with that, for a couple of reasons: it was a pretty diverse group of kids, and I liked that they could all learn from a very young age that America ideally means all of them, equally, no questions asked; and it was just so darn cute to hear him recite his version of it. So the practice, again, not an issue. But having heard the main classroom teacher articulate the theory while telling a fellow parent about her reasoning behind having them recite it—she said, and this is a paraphrase but it’s close, “It’s just one of those founding American things, you know? So I feel like they should know it as soon as possible”—helped confirm for me something that I’ve long suspected, which is that our communal knowledge of the Pledge is pretty significantly inaccurate on two key fronts.
For one thing, the Pledge’s historical origin is both more recent and much more radical than we probably know. It was created not in the Founding era, but more than a century later, in 1892; the still fresh sectional division of the Civil War, and its resulting destructions and continuing bitterness, meant that the word “indivisible” was not at all a given, and instead very much a point of emphasis for the Pledge’s creator. And moreover that creator, Francis Bellamy, was thinking not only of those divisions, but also and even more strikingly of the Christian Socialism to which both he and his cousin Edward Bellamy (author of the socialist utopian novel Looking Backward) subscribed: Frances Bellamy later admitted that he originally planned to include “equality” along with “liberty and justice for all,” or even to use instead the French Revolutionary slogan “liberty, equality, fraternity,” but recognized that in the late 19th century such beliefs were still unfortunately “too fanciful, too many thousands of years off in realization.” Yet even the emphasis on “liberty and justice for all,” in the same decade in which the Supreme Court confirmed the legality of Jim Crow segregation and the same year in which the number of lynchings of African Americans reached an all-time high, was like “indivisible” far from a given; and Bellamy’s reaffirmation of those core ideals, particularly as located in the Pledge’s culminating phrase, was and remains a significant and inspiring statement.
As valuable and influential as it would be for those origins to be part of our public consciousness of the Pledge, however, it would be even more significant for us to recognize its most overt evolution, and the contexts behind it. For the first sixty-two years of its existence, the Pledge included no reference to religion; it was only in 1954, after a campaign by the Catholic organization the Knights of Columbus, that Congress added the words “under god.” It should, I believe, be impossible not to recognize the very specific contexts for that addition, in an era of still strong McCarthyism (with its tendency to conflate atheism with anti-Americanism) and likewise a period in which opposition to the “godless Communism” of the Soviet Union was becoming entrenched in every aspect of American government and society. Less absolute but still worth our awareness is the reaction of the Bellamy family to this addition—Frances had been dead for over twenty years, but his granddaughter argued vehemently that he would have been opposed to the change, noting that he had been forced out of his church in 1891 due to his socialist perspective and had toward the end of his life voluntarily left a church in Florida because of its endorsement of racial discrimination. While we can never know for sure what Bellamy would have thought, we can certainly acknowledge the very contemporary and politicized motivations behind this addition; doing so, to my mind, would—especially if coupled with an understanding of Bellamy and the Pledge’s origins—make it much more difficult to see critiques of “under god,” or of the Pledge itself, as un- or anti-American.
I am not, to be clear, arguing that we should discard the Pledge, or even necessarily alter its current version. Instead, as I hope is always the case in this space, I am arguing first that we can’t ever assume that our versions of core national texts and stories are necessarily accurate or complete, and that we have to try to tell the fuller, more complex, perhaps more dark but usually also more rich and meaningful, stories and histories behind them. Second, and even more significantly, I’d argue that when we do, it opens our history and identity up, truly democratizes them, makes clear how much they have evolved and how much they continue to do so, and thus how much of a role we have to play in shaping and carrying them forward.
Next myth tomorrow,
BenPS. What do you think? Other myths, American or otherwise, you’d want to bust?