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The Pledge: The Real Objection

Well, we've had another federal judge rule that making children in public schools recite the "under God" portion of the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional, because it amounts to establishing a religion. As long as the topic is likely to be in the news again – and probably a godsend for Republicans concerned about the Bush administration's performance in Iraq and our own Gulf in the 2006 election – we might as well widen the debate.

It's not the "under God" part I object to; although I can see an abstract argument that this is a first step on a slippery slope toward establishing a religion, it really isn't. If I thought it really meant the nation was to submit itself to God, which would mean a lot fewer wars of choice and a lot less stealing in the "public interest," I might even be enthusiastic. But this formulation is one of vague public piety more meant to imply that God is on our side than to express fealty to His commandments.

I object to the very idea of making students "pledge allegiance" to a rapacious state mechanism – and that is unquestionably what the pledge was designed to do, to encourage an attitude of unquestioning obedience that is unworthy of a free people.

As this article by Gene Healy of Cato asks, "What's Conservative about the Pledge of Allegiance?" The pledge was drafted in virtually its present form in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, an unapologetic socialist who had been pushed out of his position as a Baptist minister because his sermons reflected more socialism than Gospel. Francis was cousin to Edward Bellamy, who wrote the 1888 utopian socialist novel Looking Backward, which I had to read in college in a class on utopian thinking. I guess it was valuable to know that to Bellamy utopia meant a highly regimented place where all incomes were equal and men were drafted into the state's "industrial army" at age 21 and did whatever the state decided they should do. It helped to cement my distaste for such a system.

After being kicked out of the pulpit Francis Bellamy went to work for a magazine called Youth's Companion, and decided to work through the public schools rather than the church to advance his notion of a socialist worker's paradise. The Pledge was unquestionably part of this campaign. Bellamy even recommended that the ceremony start with a military salute and "At the words, u2018to my Flag,' the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, towards the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation." For better or worse (and to be fair, long after Bellamy's recommendation) the Nazis adopted this same salute. It was quietly dropped from American practice, but the intention was similar – to encourage a quasi-religious subordination to government.

In a country founded on "unalienable rights" of individuals, in which the government's job is supposedly to "preserve these rights" and not much else, the government should be pledging allegiance to citizens and their rights, not the other way around.

It is curious that people who call themselves conservatives now consider this overtly socialist inducement to state-worship part of the sacred tradition of liberty and justice.

September 17, 2005

Alan Bock [send him mail] is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge and Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana.