Sunday, December 11, 2011

Taking the pledge

That blog thread about Christians and Christmas I’ve been following took an odd turn overnight when the Pledge of Allegiance entered the conversation. Some courthouses, someone alleged, have banned the pledge because it contains the word “God.”

Now so far as I know, that isn’t true. Actually, I can’t think of many occasions in a courthouse when the pledge normally would be recited. Perhaps at a naturalization ceremony? Really can’t say.

But I am reasonably confident that if you want to begin your day with the pledge, standing at a courthouse window or in the courtroom with (right) hand over heart looking at Old Glory, you’d be well within your rights to do so. We’re not talking about a Nativity scene, after all.

Courts generally have ruled that “God” in the pledge, as with “In God We Trust” on currency and elsewhere, is essentially meaningless and therefore without threat --- mere mindless mouthing most of the time of words unhitched from significance.

My record with the pledge is mixed. Can’t remember as a rule which hand is supposed to be where during its recital (so much for personal presidential aspirations); learned it without “under God” back in 1952 down at old Dry Flat and still say it that way now and then; and generally don’t say it at all if it’s inserted into a religious service (church and state, you know).

But it does have an interesting history. Written in 1892 by a Baptist preacher named Francis Bellamy --- without the “God” word and first published in a magazine called “The Youth’s Companion” --- it was part of a drive by James B. Upham (in marketing as you might expect) to sell U.S. flags to schools across America and subscriptions to their students.

The Rev. Mr. Bellamy was, by the way, a socialist --- in favor of equitable distribution of economic resources. A godful communist, if you like.

The pledge meandered along, picking up adherents in public schools and elsewhere but wasn’t enshrined in public law until after the outbreak of World War II, during 1942.

At that time, protocol required students to deliver the “Bellamy salute” when reciting the pledge --- right arm extended straight out, palm down. Sound familiar? Later on in 1942, protocol was amended to incorporate the hand-over-heart business in order to differentiate the U.S. salute from the Nazi salute.

God came along in 1954, along with godless communists. Attempts to amend the pledge had failed until President Eisenhower, recently baptized and admitted to the Presbyterian fold, jumped aboard the bandwagon.

Eisenhower, although by no means irreverent, had embraced no church formally until then, but his childhood had been played out against the River Brethren background of his mother, later a Jehovah’s Witness --- pacifist and separatist.

During its course, mandatory recitation of the pledge was instituted in some schools, resulting to objections from Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who considered the pledge an expression of idolatry. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1940 that students could be compelled to recite it, that decision was reversed in 1943.

In the interim, Christians had taken to beating up “godless” Jehovah’s Witnesses, a practice abandoned as other targets presented themselves.

“God” still ends up in court now and then, but as of 2010 courts hold that because rote recitation essentially is meaningless, inclusion of the word in the pledge doesn’t constitute a threat to religious freedom.

So we can say the pledge, or not; with God, or without. Now that’s the American way.

No comments: