By Bill Vann 28 June 2002
The ruling by a three-judge federal appeals court panel in San
Francisco that compelling the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance
to one nation under God in public schools is unconstitutional
has afforded yet another opportunity for American's politicians
to make fools of themselves.
The decision did no more than reaffirm the essential right to
freedom from government establishment of religion and the principle
of separation of church and state enshrined in the First Amendment
of the US Constitution.
The statement that the United States is a nation under God is
an endorsement of religion, the courts majority wrote. It added
that the pledge sends a message to unbelievers that they are
outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an
accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored
members of the political community.
As written, the court said, the pledge is no less a violation
of the constitutional protection against establishment of religion
than if it described the US as a nation under Jesus, a nation
under Vishnu, a nation under Zeus, or a nation under no god.
The First Amendment, it continued, prohibits the government's
endorsement or advancement not only of one religion at the expense
of other religions, but also of religion at the expense of atheism.
From both a legal and a democratic standpoint, all of this is
unassailable. Yet the ruling has ignited a nationwide furor,
with congressmen and television personalities tripping over each
other to be the loudest in braying out their protest against
the court's action.
Meanwhile, fascistic [men], taking their cue from these political
leaders, have made death threats against both the California
man who brought the lawsuit against the pledge and his daughter,
a child in the second grade.
The Senate organized a hasty 99-to-0 vote denouncing the court's
reaffirmation of one of the most fundamental democratic rights
upon which the country was founded. Over 100 Congressmen poured
out onto the Capitol steps to recite the pledge and sing God
The frenzied reaction was bipartisan. President Bush called the
ruling ridiculous. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat,
said it was just nuts. House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt
of Missouri railed against any attempt to change the time-tested,
venerable pledge that is such a central part of our country's
life and our nation's heritage.
These scoundrels know little and care less about the nation's
heritage.ö The House of Representatives began its tradition
of saying the pledge each morning only in 1988, as the result
of a dirty tricks campaign by the Republican Party and George
Bush Sr. against Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.
The Massachusetts governor had vetoed a law requiring the Pledge
of Allegiance in all public schools, correctly calling it a violation
of the First Amendment. The Republicans sought on that basis
to brand him as un-American. For its part, the Senate began the
practice only two years ago.
The origins of the 31-word oath lie in the relatively recent
history of America, a history that does not bear much probing
as far as the pledge's modern-day defenders are concerned.
Its author was Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister who was pressured
into giving up his Boston pulpit because of the church's opposition
to his Christian-socialist sermons. He was a first cousin of
Edward Bellamy, author of the well-known socialist-utopian novel,
He wrote the pledge in 1892 for the magazine The Youth's Companion.
It included no reference to God, which would only be tacked on
62 years later.
He chose the words, he later wrote, with his mind on salient
points of our national history, from the Declaration of Independence
onwards; with the makings of the Constitution
... with the meaning of the Civil War; with the aspiration of
In short, the democratic ideals of the American Revolution, the
Civil War and the abolition of slavery animated the original
pledge. Bellamy acknowledged, however, that he had wanted to
include the words 'liberty, justice and equality for all,' but
left out equality because he knew that it would be opposed by
fellow members of the National Education Association, who stood
against equal rights for blacks and women.
Even so, the pledge as written rankled the reactionaries of that
period, and it was not long before they set about changing it.
What had begun as an idealistic tribute to the universal democratic
principles of the country's founding, was soon transformed into
a vow of obedience to a rising imperialist power that was to
exert its military might around the globe.
The drive to make recitation of the pledge compulsory began only
in the early 1920s, amid the wave of reaction that followed the
Russian Revolution and gave rise to the anticommunist Palmer
Raids and a nationwide anti-immigrant witch-hunt. Spearheading
the campaign for the pledge were the American Legion and the
Ku Klux Klan, both notorious for their role in the wave of lynchings
that swept the country during the same period.
This campaign also involved a critical change to the text drafted
by Bellamy, substituting for the original, 'my flag,' the words,
'the flag of the United States of America.' Bellamy protested
this nationalistic revision, aimed against foreigners and 'reds.'
He had intended the oath not as one of American jingoism, he
said, but an international pledge of peace, adaptable to all
nations. His opinion, however, was drowned out by the patriotic
ranting of the American Legion and the KKK.
After the US entry into World War II, the manner in which the
pledge was delivered underwent an alteration as well. Until then,
students were instructed to recite it with their right arms rigidly
extended, shoulder high. The resemblance to Nazi youth swearing
fealty to Hitler was too close for comfort. Americans were instructed
to place their hands over their hearts instead.
The second major change in the text, introducing the words now
defended so vociferously by both major parties, was carried out
in another period of deep reaction, at the height of the McCarthyite
witch-hunt of the 1950s. Congress, responding
to a campaign by the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic men's
organization, added 'under God.' The clear aim was
to mobilize religion in the campaign against godless communism
abroad, and to further the persecution of socialists, communists
and atheists at home.
Bellamy had died decades earlier, but his granddaughter said
that he would have opposed the introduction of religion. In the
end, the mutilation of his original text recalls nothing so much
as Orwell's 'Animal Farm,' in which the principle that 'all animals
are created equal,' was twisted into 'some animals are more equal
It is hardly an accident that a challenge to the introduction
of 'God' into the pledge evokes such a visceral reaction from
ruling circles today. The 'heritage' of McCarthyism, police-state
repression and anti-immigrant crackdowns is being revived with
a vengeance, and with the backing of both political parties.
In the wake of September 11, there has been a concerted campaign
to promote cheap patriotism and inject ever-larger doses of religion
into national life as a means of diverting the American people
from any critical examination of the roots of the present crisis.
Doubtless the correct decision of the Ninth Circuit will be overturned
by the black-robed reactionaries on the US Supreme Court, if
it is not struck down first by the full appeals court. Nonetheless,
the event has had the singular value of providing a self-exposure
of a Congress, presidency and media that are permeated with stupidity
and cowardice and united in virulent opposition to the most elementary