In 1888, journalist Edward Bellamy wrote Looking Backward: 2000-1887, which is the story of a young man who manages to enter a deep sleep for 113 years to awake in the world of 2000. American society has become a utopia in which private property has been nationalized, goods are equally distributed, people can retire at 45, and food is available for free at public kitchens. Although what he describes is Marxian socialism, Bellamy doesn’t use the term “socialism” in the book as the term was tremendously negatively regarded in that time, more so than today. Instead, he called this philosophy “Nationalism”, in that the nation owns all property. Bellamy’s book became tremendously popular in his time and among 19th century books was only outsold by Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. This book also influenced the creation of the Populist Party, the first significant party to call for outright socialist policies. One adherent to his ideas was his cousin, Baptist minister Francis Bellamy (1855-1931), who contributed to American patriotism in a way that we know quite well today.
In 1891, Bellamy delivered sermons before his congregation in Boston in which he denounced capitalism and argued that Jesus was a socialist. His sermons deeply offended his congregation and ultimately, he got booted out, but he moved on to another endeavor: forming a new nationalism for America. In 1892, Bellamy wrote in the children’s magazine Youth’s Companion the Pledge of Allegiance, which reads in its revised version, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Although Bellamy was a socialist minister, he refrained from including any reference to religion or socialism in the pledge. He was, along with being a socialist, a patriot and his patriotism motivated his creation of the pledge. Bellamy wanted to “inoculate” immigrants and native-born Americans who waver in their patriotism from “radicalism” and “subversion” (Beato). He was not a socialist in a modern sense, but rather in an old sense and this meant that culturally he was more like the Populists in that he was wary of mass immigration.
Bellamy gained support from the National Education Association to adopt this in schools and he even created his own salute to the flag, known as the “Bellamy salute”. This was dropped during World War II and replaced with the hand over the heart for the reason you can see below:
Nope, that’s not some sort of Nazi school, that’s students in a regular classroom giving the old salute to the flag. The Bellamy salute was slightly different than the Nazi salute, but the confusion was enough for the change. The pledge got changed in minor ways a few times (none of which Bellamy approved) and in 1919 the state of Washington became the first to legally require students to recite the pledge weekly. Although the law is upheld by the Supreme Court in 1940 when Jehovah’s Witnesses challenge it, the Supreme Court overruled itself only three years later. The pledge was legally adopted by Congress in 1942. Its final form in 1954, the one that we know, reads, “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” The phrase “under God” was the addition of Senator Homer Ferguson (R-Mich.) and Reps. Charles Oakman (R-Mich.) and Louis Rabaut (D-Mich.), who sponsored the legislation and wanted to contrast the United States with the officially atheist USSR.
The Pledge of Allegiance has existed for 128 years and for 66 years in its current form. Will it be changed again in the future? Will a future generation opt to leave God out of it again? Will we dispense with the pledge altogether? Will we bring back the Bellamy salute? Okay, I’m just kidding on that last one. However, my point here is that the Pledge of Allegiance hasn’t always been how we’ve known it and could still be changed in the future. While I like the way the Pledge is right now and I will say all of it if prompted, I nonetheless think it is worth it for us to reflect on what the implications of the Pledge are regarding obedience to the state and whether we ought to have God in it.
Beato, G. (2010, December 16). Face the Flag. Reason.
Jones, J.O. (2003, November). The Man Who Wrote the Pledge of Allegiance. The Smithsonian.