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To The Flag
Invented as part of a magazine promotional scheme in 1892, the Pledge of Allegiance has had a controversial career right from the start
June 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 4
Even before it was made official, the pledge became the focus of legal attacks by religious and conscientious objectors. In 1940 a Pennsylvania couple, who were members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, insisted that a school regulation requiring children to recite the pledge and salute the flag each day was contrary to the Book of Exodus’ injunction against servitude to any graven image. Their argument was ultimately rejected by the Supreme Court, which upheld a state’s right to impose the pledge. Three years later, however, the Court reversed its previous decision in a suit brought by a West Virginia couple, declaring that no one could “force citizens to confess by word or act” their loyalty. Subsequent decisions broadened this ruling, and today no child or adult can be compelled to recite the pledge or even stand during the ceremony—a freedom that is not always honored in practice.
The words of the Pledge of Allegiance managed to remain unchanged for a little more than ten years; then, once again, a war—the Korean—served as an impetus to patriotism. In April, 1953, Representative Louis C. Rabaut of Michigan received a letter from a man who suggested adding two words to the pledge that its author, the Reverend Mr. Bellamy, apparently never thought of—“under God.” Rabaut was impressed by the idea—Lincoln had used those very words in his Gettysburg Address—and he introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives to amend the pledge. The proposal drew a chorus of approval from most churches, labor unions, patriotic groups, radio stations, and newspapers. But there were dissenters, too; though fewer in number, they were just as vocal. The Unitarian Ministers Association and the Freethinkers of America charged that the addition would violate religious freedom as implicit in the First Amendment’s guarantee of separation of church and state. Somebody suggested that everything would be all right if a further addition were made: the words “if any” after “under God.” “Everyone,” a citizen wrote to the New York Times , “has to believe in God if he wants to pledge allegiance to the flag. How is this consistent with the end of the Pledge of Allegiance, ’… with liberty and justice for all’?”
The pro-“under God” forces received important support in a Lincoln Day sermon the following February. The Reverend George M. Docherty, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, where President Dwight D. Eisenhower worshipped, said, as the President sat in attendance , “There [is] something missing in the pledge, [something that is] … the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life. Indeed , apart from the mention of the phrase, ‘the United States of America ,’ it could be the pledge of any republic. In fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer- and- sickle flag in Moscow. …”
Congress went on to pass a joint resolution adopting the change (apparently no one discovered that the Soviet Union has no such pledge, with or wothout “under God”), and on Flag Day, June 14, 1954, Eisenhower signed the revision into law. It now read, as it does today:
Congressman Rabaut went one step further. He asked songwriter Irving (“Tea for Two”) Caesar to set the pledge to music and got the House to authorize the printing of more than three hundred thousand copies of the song. It was sung for the first time in the House chamber on Flag Day, June 14, 1955, by the official Air Force choral group, the Singing Sergeants. Despite a rousing rendition, the tune was quickly forgotten; it had none of the heroic fervor of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which, however unsingable, is a natural for a blood-stirring rendition by band or orchestra. For better or worse, the Pledge of Allegiance will have to make its claim to immortality without benefit of music.
Or perhaps Samuel Butler will prove right in the long run: “Oaths are but words,” he said back in 1663, “and words but wind.”