The Origins of the American Pledge
“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.”
These thirty one words are uttered in schools across the nation routinely. Standing with hand over heart and eyes locked to the nearest flag, our display of cult-like nationalism can be bewildering to foreigners and outside onlookers alike.
As an American student, from kindergarten through senior year I’ve stood for the pledge everyday for nearly twelve years. The tradition is so deeply ingrained in my schooling, I had previously never questioned its origins, nor did it seem extraordinary in any way. That is, until I had a conversation with a Spanish foriegn exchange student. She viewed it as, “one of the most American things she had seen” and “uncomfortable nationalism”. She questioned why anyone would show such reverence for a country with such numerous problems, saying that no country was worth a Nazi-esque salute that was first given when the pledge was recited.
The pledge originated from the 400th Anniversary celebration of the Columbus’ terror filled arrival to the New World. There were plans in 1891 to raise every American flag from the Pacific to the Atlantic over schools across the nation. Francis Bellamy, a Baptist pastor was tasked by a magazine to capture the, “underlying spirit” of the country in a sparse few sentences, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands — one Nation indivisible — with liberty and justice for all.”
Unfortunately, this pledge was not written as an expression of American greatness in the face of immorality but instead in response to the tide of Eastern European immigrants fleeing war and poverty. Bellamy himself was worried about America being the “dumping ground” of Europe’s problems. This attitude was prevalent to the highest echelons of American society, and the next year the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed into law.
Fast forward to 1942, and the pledge is officially added to the U.S. flag code and ratified as the nation’s word of honor. It was then that the pledge was made a mandatory part of the American child’s school day, a forced show of nationalism in the country leading the free world against the tyranny of fascism.
In 1954, as fascism faded and the greater evil of Soviet Communism reared its ugly head in the minds of Americans, fear was at an all time. With the Red Scare in full affect, and McCarthy leading his crimson kangaroo courts, America reverted back to the high morality of Christianity. In the face of a godless and tyrannical regime the words, “Under God” were added to the pledge. Now, in the country that prided itself on freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and unrivaled liberty, a mandatory pledge praising both country and Christianity served to indoctrinate many young Americans, while alienating many more.
To this day, I stand for the pledge promptly every morning. Although the words wash over me, and I don’t identify with the exuberant American exceptionalism and Christianity it promotes, I still stand and place my right hand over my heart. Perhaps that shows the effectiveness of the indoctrination into outright nationalism, unfortunately exceptionalism breeds arrogance.