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The Pledge and the Propaganda
How the true history of the Pledge of Allegiance undermines white Christian nationalism
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The United States "Pledge of Allegiance” has always functioned as patriotic propaganda.
Popularized in 1892 as part of the Columbian Exposition, the Pledge was an adaption credited to Francis Bellamy and included in an edition of the Youth’s Companion periodical.
The “Columbian” part of the Columbian exposition refers to Christopher Columbus and the event commemorated the 400 year anniversary of when Columbus “discovered” America, and it was designed to instill a sense of patriotism after the Civil War and in leading up to World War I.
But phrases like “one nation under God” that are now included in the Pledge of Allegiance are ripped from their historical context and co-opted by white Christian nationalists to enforce a fundamentalist reading of Christian ethics on a pluralistic nation.
With the ascension of Mike Johnson, a white Christian nationalist to the position of Speaker of the House, understanding the relationship between church and state is an urgent issue for everyone in the U.S.
The Origin of the Pledge
The original pledge offered by Bellamy reads as follows:
“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
The Youth’s Companion furnished readers with an entire program to accompany the 400 year anniversary and the Pledge of Allegiance. It was part of a larger movement by the publication to sell U.S. flags to schools and encourage a love of nation.
In their instructions, students were to executive a military salute during part of the pledge, and then
“At the words, ‘to my Flag,’ the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward towards the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation.”
Of course, that last part, the one where students look like they are giving the Nazi salute, was discontinued during World War II because it looked like, well, the Nazi salute.
In 1923, amid fears of a growing immigrant population, the phrase “my flag” was changed to “the flag of the United States” to ensure that immigrants were explicitly dedicating themselves to their new nation and not the one from whence they came.
Notably, Francis Bellamy was an ordained Baptist minister and pastor who followed Christian Socialism in his earlier years. He spoke and wrote forthrightly about economic justice and Christian social responsibility.
Yet Rev. Bellamy chose not to include any reference to God in the early version of the Pledge of Allegiance. He believed in the separation of church and state.
Another Minister Aids the Effort
The current version of the pledge, the one that includes the phrase “under God” did not come about until the 1950s.
The Catholic fraternal group, the Knights of Columbus, spearheaded efforts to add “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.
In 1951, they started reciting the pledge with the words “under God” and also started lobbying members of Congress and other elected officials to pass a policy that incorporated the additional words.
Their efforts were aided by a sermon from Rev. George M. Docherty, the pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C. Docherty delivered a patriotic sermon in 1954 when he learned President Dwight D. Eisenhower would be in attendance.
In his sermon, Docherty, who was originally from Scotland, reflected about hearing the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time from his school-age son.
And I came to a strange conclusion. There was something missing in this pledge, and that which was missing was the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life. Indeed, apart from the mention of the phrase, the United States of America, this could be a pledge of any republic. In fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag in Moscow with equal solemnity, for Russia is also a republic that claims to have overthrown the tyranny of kingship.
Then Docherty proceeded to recommend an addition that would fill the missing piece of the pledge.
What, therefore, is missing in the pledge of allegiance that Americans have been saying off and on since 1892, and officially since 1942? The one fundamental concept that completely and ultimately separates Communist Russia from the democratic institutions of this country. This was seen clearly by Lincoln. Under God this people shall know a new birth of freedom, and “under God” are the definitive words.
In Docherty’s view, “To omit the words “under God” in the pledge of allegiance is to omit the definitive character of the American way of life.
Yet Docherty still allowed for some measure of religious freedom and pluralism.
“Of course, as Christians, we might include the words ‘under Jesus Christ’ or ‘under the King of Kings.’ But one of the glories of this land is that is has opened its gates to all men of every religious faith,” Docherty explained.
But the sermon had its intended effect.
Amid the Cold War and fears of Russia’s political and military power as well as the spread of Communism abroad, Eisenhower and his administration took action.
The years-long effort to include the phrase “under God” had its champion in President Eisenhower and on June 14, 1954, Flag Day, he signed the law adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.
White Christian Nationalism Today
The relatively recent addition of an explicit reference to God should serve as a historical lesson about white Christian nationalism today.
Claims from white Christian nationalists such as the new Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, that America was founded as a Christian nation bely the political and social campaigns to rebrand the nation explicitly religious in nature.
White Christian nationalists believe in what sociologists Philip Gorski and Sam Perry describe as a “deep story.”
In their book The Flag and the Cross, they write:
"White Christian nationalism’s “deep story” goes something like this: America was founded as a Christian nation by (white) men who were “traditional” Christians, who based the nation’s founding documents on “Christian principles.” The United States is blessed by God, which is why it has been so successful; and the nation has a special role to play in God’s plan for humanity. But these blessings are threatened by cultural degradation from “un-American” influences both inside and outside our borders."
Mike Johnson and other white Christian nationalists believe that the United States has always been a Christian country and it will prosper or falter depending on how much its citizens cleave to a narrow, fundamentalist version of Christianity.
White Christian nationalists appeal to history to support their mythical narrative of the nation.
The U.S. has its roots in Christianity, they say, and the country is descending into destruction because it has lost the faith. Only be creating laws and policies that enforce a particular understanding of Christianity, will the nation be saved.
As much as white Christian nationalists want to inflate Christianity’s role in the founding of the United States, the history of the Pledge of Allegiance shows that even its original writers and proponents never intended it to be weaponized for authoritarian, anti-democratic ends.
How should this history of the pledge and the phrase “under God” shape our approach to faith and politics today? Comment below.
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