Thursday, September 15, 2005

Some Sanity on the Pledge

Blogenlust is on it:

An important fact to know before the shitstorm over the pledge of allegiance begins: The "under God" clause was only added to the pledge in the 1950s.

Does this remind you of anything?

The efforts to bring God into the state reached their peak during the so-called "religious revival" of the 1950s. It was a time when Norman Vincent Peale grafted religion onto the era's feel-good consumerism in his best-selling The Power of Positive Thinking; when Billy Graham rose to fame as a Red-baiter who warned that Americans would perish in a nuclear holocaust unless they embraced Jesus Christ; when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles believed that the United States should oppose communism not because the Soviet Union was a totalitarian regime but because its leaders were atheists.

Hand in hand with the Red Scare, to which it was inextricably linked, the new religiosity overran Washington. Politicians outbid one another to prove their piety. President Eisenhower inaugurated that Washington staple: the prayer breakfast. Congress created a prayer room in the Capitol. In 1955, with Ike's support, Congress added the words "In God We Trust" on all paper money. In 1956 it made the same four words the nation's official motto, replacing "E Pluribus Unum." Legislators introduced Constitutional amendments to state that Americans obeyed "the authority and law of Jesus Christ."

The campaign to add "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance was part of this movement. It's unclear precisely where the idea originated, but one driving force was the Catholic fraternal society the Knights of Columbus. In the early '50s the Knights themselves adopted the God-infused pledge for use in their own meetings, and members bombarded Congress with calls for the United States to do the same. Other fraternal, religious, and veterans clubs backed the idea. In April 1953, Rep. Louis Rabaut, D-Mich., formally proposed the alteration of the pledge in a bill he introduced to Congress.

The "under God" movement didn't take off, however, until the next year, when it was endorsed by the Rev. George M. Docherty, the pastor of the Presbyterian church in Washington that Eisenhower attended. In February 1954, Docherty gave a sermon—with the president in the pew before him—arguing that apart from "the United States of America," the pledge "could be the pledge of any country." He added, "I could hear little Moscovites [sic] repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag with equal solemnity." Perhaps forgetting that "liberty and justice for all" was not the norm in Moscow, Docherty urged the inclusion of "under God" in the pledge to denote what he felt was special about the United States.

The ensuing congressional speechifying—debate would be a misnomer, given the near-unanimity of opinion—offered more proof that the point of the bill was to promote religion. The legislative history of the 1954 act stated that the hope was to "acknowledge the dependence of our people and our Government upon … the Creator … [and] deny the atheistic and materialistic concept of communism." In signing the bill on June 14, 1954, Flag Day, Eisenhower delighted in the fact that from then on, "millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town … the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty." That the nation, constitutionally speaking, was in fact dedicated to the opposite proposition seemed to escape the president.

Let me be blunt: the pledge of allegiance means very little to me, with or without the inclusion of "under God." Of course, I could recite it in my sleep, but that has more to do with some sort of Pavlovian response to the words "I pledge allegiance...", then it does to a desire on my part to know what it is I'm saying. That's what happens when you start reciting the pledge on a daily basis in the first grade--you know the words but not the meaning, and if that's the case, what's the point? (by the way, I was probably 10 before I realized that indivisible was not invisible).

If the pledge is an expression of patriotism, I'm not sure how it's not still patriotic if the words "under God" are excluded, especially since that particular clause was added to the original pledge for explicitly religious purposes. But, then again, if being patriotic depends on your willingness to recite a silly pledge written for a popular magazine in 1892 (by a socialist, no less!), then we're more screwed than I thought.

article here.


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