One of the first and most powerful rituals any American citizen can perform is the Pledge of Allegiance. We all memorized the pledge in grade school, and it stuck with us the rest of our lives.
In the season when we celebrate July 4, celebrating our nation’s Independence from Britain, we recite: “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 history of this pledge began with Col. George Balch, a Civil War officer who taught at West Point and later served as commander of the military arsenal in Charleston. He eventually retired and moved to New York, where he worked for the public school system. In that role, he focused on developing rituals to promote patriotism. One of them was his composition of the first version of the Pledge of Allegiance, “I give my heart and my hand to my country — one country, one language, one flag.”
In 1892, Francis Bellamy, a minister, introduced the revised version of the pledge, which said, “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
In 1923, the phrase “the flag of the United States of America,” was added. Congress adopted the pledge in 1942.
By 1954, during the Eisenhower administration, when the nation was feared the onslaught of communism, an additional phrase was added: “under God.”
In the Rev. Bellemy’s Youth Companion book, where his version first appeared, the tradition was that, when reaching the word “flag” students would “extend the right hand gracefully, palm upward, toward the flag, and remain in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.” This was the ritual until after World War II, when political leaders decided that this kind of salute resembled the Nazi salute. The ritual was adjusted to keep the right hand over the heart.
The July 4 holiday gives us the opportunity to reflect on our nation’s spiritual vitality when we recite the pledge. When we say “one nation under God,” what do we mean? Putting aside the theology of our different religions and what we subscribe to in our beliefs about God, the point here is a blending of America’s spiritual heritage with the political aspects of our God-given and Constitution-decreed freedoms.
As a nation, we have always taken God seriously as part of our beliefs and our morality. We proudly proclaim America’s Judeo-Christian heritage, setting up this idea of one nation under God as a unifying factor for our nation. That paradigm still rings true for most of us, even, I believe, for our citizens who do not believe in a God concept. We say we are all “under God” not as a theological test or an act of religious commitment, but as an affirmation of what the American civilization has stood for since the very beginning of our history.
The fact is that America has always had struggles between religions and ethnicities, whether it was Jewish immigration or the ability of Catholics to worship freely in colonial times or today with regard to newly increasing religious minorities such as Islam, Buddhism or Sikhism. For us, the question is do these groups count for being under God in the American tradition?
The truth is that the story of religious minorities has always been about a struggle for acceptance and integration into the mainstream of American life. It would surely be helpful if Judeo-Christians would embrace these new minorities. But, at the end of the day, what really matters is not what others say or believe. Rather, it is about what each us believes about ourselves when we recite this part of the pledge. Do we believe that just by reciting this pledge, regardless of our religious affiliation, that that is enough for God? Do we hold to the conviction that being an American means that religious diversity is apart of the tapestry of American culture?
If we believe that the pledge is true with regard to the idea that all Americans stand under God, then what could we do to affirm this aspect of the pledge and create “liberty and justice for all.”
First, we could do more to educate ourselves about religious diversity, even though we have different traditions and even disagreements because of religion on public policy issues.
Second, we could enact a national religion day when we find creative ways to honor our nation’s religious traditions as part and parcel of the American story.
Third, every American could, once a year, go to visit one house of worship outside of his or her own religious tradition.
These days, we see too much religious extremism and violence associated with terrorism that causes us all to mistrust and quite often isolate these new faiths. America needs to be in the forefront, leading by example, that societies with different religious communities can learn to get along with each other.
The Pledge of Allegiance is supposed to inspire us to be protectors of these principles and not detractors from the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Isn’t this ideal what the Pledge of Allegiance is all about?