The Universal Notebook: Socialism and the Pledge of Allegiance

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South Portland High School students Lily SanGiovanni, Morrigan Turner and Gaby Ferrell are to be congratulated for their efforts to defend American freedom. The students have drawn criticism in some quarters for asking that students be informed that they should only recite the Pledge of Allegiance “if you’d like to.”

It is refreshing to see high school students standing up for their rights, something that does not happen often enough. Back in the 1960s, high school students established the right to remain silent during the Pledge of Allegiance if they so desired. You’d think that such a defense of freedom of speech would be supported by all citizens, but there seem to be some knee-jerk patriots who think all students should be forced to pledge allegiance to the flag.

I’m guessing the people who criticized the students probably don’t know a thing about the Pledge of Allegiance. If they did, they might not be so quick to shove it down everyone’s throat.

The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister who was driven from the church for preaching that Jesus was a socialist. Bellamy wrote the pledge for the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to the new world, but, being a Christian socialist and a nationalist, his larger political agenda was to promote a strong federal government and to instill a sense of allegiance to country that would counter the capitalist greed and selfish individualism of his day.

But while Bellamy was a progressive, in keeping with the white male privilege of the time, he was also an anti-immigrant racist. In an 1897 editorial, for instance, Bellamy wrote, “A democracy like ours cannot afford to throw itself open to the world. Where every man is a lawmaker, every dull-witted or fanatical immigrant admitted to our citizenship is a bane to the commonwealth. Where all classes of society merge insensibly into one another every alien immigrant of inferior race may bring corruption to the stock.”

To his credit, however, despite being an ordained minister, Bellamy did not include the words “under God” in his pledge. He was a firm believer in the separation of church and state, so much so that he supported public education solely and opposed parochial schools. It was the Catholic fraternal organization the Knights of Columbus who lobbied for “under God” to be added to the Pledge Allegiance, which Congress did in 1954 as Americans entered the Cold War against the godless Communists.

For the first 50 years of its recitation, the Pledge of Allegiance was accompanied by the so-called Bellamy Salute, classrooms full of school children standing before the flag with their right hands extended up and out in front of them. All that was missing was the heel click. When the Nazis adopted that salute, Congress passed a bill in 1942 dictating that the Pledge be recited with the right hand over the heart instead.

To their credit, 73 percent of the 4,400 readers of the Portland daily newspaper who responded to the online survey question, “Do you think that saying the Pledge of Allegiance should be optional for public school students?” responded “Yes.” On the other hand, 70 percent of the listeners to WBLM radio who responded to a similar survey felt that students should be required to recite the Pledge. Since I assume a lot of young people listen to The Blimp, it seems they don’t understand their rights very well.

In fact, saying the Pledge of Allegiance has been optional since 1943, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette that American students could not be forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school.

In the West Virginia decision, the Supreme Court reversed itself only three years after deciding in Minersville School District v. Gobitis that Jehovah’s Witnesses could be forced to recite the pledge in school. Two of the justices who changed their mind and came over to the side of free speech were Hugo Black and William O. Douglas.

“Words uttered under coercion are proof of loyalty to nothing but self-interest,” Black and Douglas wrote. “Love of country must spring from willing hearts and free minds, inspired by a fair administration of wise laws enacted by the people’s elected representatives within the bounds of express constitutional prohibitions.”

Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance will not make you a better American any more than not reciting it will make you a worse one. Being free to do so “if you’d like to” is what makes you an American. It is to the everlasting credit of SanGiovanni, Turner and Ferrell that even as teenagers they were able to see through the hollow patriotism of mandatory loyalty oaths.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.