Spare me any idle chatter about love of God and country when it comes to the Pledge of Allegiance.
That’s what we may have been taught to believe, but the pledge’s beginnings belie such dogma. Some historical context might be particularly instructive, given our pitiable grasp of civics, including, it seems, among some educators.
“Pledge controversies” – more precisely, over the words “under God” – have recently surfaced at public schools in Tracy and San Jacinto. The San Jacinto Unified School District agreed in late October to apologize to a Monte Vista Middle School student after a teacher admonished the 11-year-old boy for not standing during the pledge.
Still unresolved is a subsequent dispute at West High School in Tracy, where Derek Giardina, 17, says he received detention and a reduced grade in his speech class for omitting the “God” reference in his third of 12 required readings. The school district, which claims to respect everyone’s religious beliefs or lack thereof, supports the punishment because, as officials put it, “If you’re going to lead the school in the pledge, you better say it in the traditional way.”
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If these educators profess to teach our children about civics and history, they are failing miserably. California state law doesn’t require the pledge to be recited in schools, and students can’t be required to say it or even stand during it, according to a 1943 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Indeed, if educators knew anything about the pledge’s origins, they’d likely be embarrassed by their insidious suggestion that nonreligious citizens like these two students are any less American than religious ones.
The original pledge was never intended as an affirmation of faith or American patriotism. It was conceived as a marketing ploy.
In 1890, a magazine publisher was selling flags to schools as a premium to solicit subscriptions. When sales declined the following year, the publisher concocted the idea of using the quadricentennial of Christopher Columbus reaching the Americas to revive the flag effort, complete with flag salutes and pledge recitations in schools nationwide. Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister, was commissioned to write the pledge, which first appeared in The Youth’s Companion on Sept. 8, 1892:
“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
“The United States of America” was added in 1923, then the words “under God” in 1954 – which Bellamy’s family descendants strongly protested. But our lawmakers decided this would somehow be a fantastic response to the perceived threat of those godless commies in Soviet Russia.
Typical, isn’t it? What many believe was about religion and patriotism was really about three dubious American obsessions: money, politics and the empty symbolic gesture.
The addition of “under God,” we should remember, occurred during a shameful time in America, when ideological witch hunts targeted people suspected of treason and subversion with only conjecture as evidence. That contagion of fear continues today. Hateful online comments have been directed at the two students. In 2012, parents in Boston challenging the pledge insisted on anonymity for fear of reprisal. Boston – a cradle of liberty against the orthodoxy this country was founded to escape.
These are perfect examples of our country’s fragile commitment to its founding principles, and how easy it is to coerce people into betraying them.
Would educators anywhere dare teach a complete history of the pledge, even proposing its recitation in Bellamy’s original version? Not likely, given the fear of inevitable backlash from those who profess faux patriotism or religious piety. So much for the champions of “original intent.”
What value, then, is our First Amendment and its enormous privileges if we fear expressing an idea, or resent those who express it?
We all celebrate this freedom every year, and we all imagine we’d have fought for it at our nation’s birth. But if the First Amendment is to mean anything, then we’re going to have to say no to those who would look to curtail it merely out of offensiveness or misinformed whim.
Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Maimzini.