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The evolution of the Pledge of Allegiance

The Pledge of Allegiance has been revered, censored, rewritten and politicized. It has given refuge to the occasional scoundrel and has hardly had a peaceful moment since it was created in 1892 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage and sell some magazines. Now, it’s in the news again as football fans, atheists, super patriots and other interested parties debate the wisdom of requiring its recital before University of Connecticut (UConn) sporting events where they already sing the national anthem. There is no plan to read the Ten Commandments at halftime.The pledge has a fascinating history. Unlike the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, it didn’t come down to us from the founders; it’s a century old magazine promotion that was so successful, it outlived the magazine. The original pledge read, “I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty, justice and equality for all.”Its author was Francis Bellamy, a clergyman and a socialist, who had been hired as circulation manager by a popular magazine called The Youth’s Companion after being fired by his Baptist congregation for seasoning his sermons with socialism. Gilded Age Christians preferred not to be reminded about Christ and the money-changers in the temple or sharing the wealth, even in the form of loaves and fishes. Remember how Mark Twain affectionately poked fun at his Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford as the Church of the Holy Speculators?At any rate, after Bellamy wrote the pledge for school children to recite on Columbus Day, it caught on nicely and reciting it became a semi-official ritual in schools and other public places. But first, Bellamy’s editors had to alter the text, telling him the words “liberty, justice and equality for all” might offend subscribers in states where equality for all was not exactly in vogue. Equality went.A few years later, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) imagined that foreigners would slyly and subversively interpret “I pledge allegiance to my flag” to mean the flags of their native lands. So the daughters got the words changed to “to the flag of the United States of America.” From then on, it was abundantly clear what flag foreigners were pledging allegiance to and the DAR ladies slept better.Congress didn’t get around to making the pledge official until 1942. That was two years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled schools could require students to pledge their allegiance even though it was considered sacrilegious by Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious groups.After Jehovah’s Witnesses’ kids got beaten up for not pledging allegiance for a couple of years, the Supreme Court reversed itself and said participation was not required. Kids who didn’t pledge were still beaten up, but many faked pledging and were able to avoid beatings. This is known in some circles as the American way. The most contentious pledge debate has been over the insertion of “under God” between “one nation” and “indivisible.” This was done in the 1950s to strengthen the ongoing battle against godless communism in the era that also gave us Joe McCarthy. Credit for this addition must be shared by the American Legion, the Knights of Columbus and Hearst Newspapers, three organizations not known at the time for hiding their patriotism.By 2003, an atheist convinced the liberal 9th Circuit Court that saying “under God” in school violated the separation of church and state. But the Supreme Court ducked the issue by overturning the 9th Circuit on the grounds that the atheist had no standing to make his case. This left under God in limbo, so to speak.And now, UConn’s acting athletic director is seeking to use the pledge once again as a promotion tool. Paul Pendergast, filling in while the president looks for an “inspirational and charismatic” permanent athletic director, says the pledge is not only patriotic, but also a fine way to call attention to UConn, which doesn’t have as many traditions as other big-time sports schools. If people don’t want to recite the pledge, Pendergast has generously acknowledged that is their choice. And so far, none of these people has been beaten up, as far as we know. Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at dahles@hotmail.com.

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