Mark C. Toulouse: Pledging Allegiance to the Pledge

Everybody loves to spin a top, and during political seasons everybody loves to spin whatever seems spin-able. First, someone spins it to the left, and then somebody else spins it to the right. Those who are experts in the art of spinning never want the spinning to stop. For when the spinning stops, things might be seen for what they are.

The words and records of the candidates are always subject to the spin experts. Lately, the spin doctors have had a run at an answer Sarah Palin provided on a questionnaire for the conservative Eagle Forum Alaska during her run for the governor’s office in 2006. The question posed by the forum was, “Are you offended by the phrase ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance?” “Not on your life,” Palin responded. “If it was good enough for the Founding Fathers, it’s good enough for me, and I’ll fight in defense of our Pledge of Allegiance.”

Without going into much detail, the Anchorage Daily News quickly pointed out to its readers (October 16, 2006) that Palin evidently had false assumptions about history. The founders, of course, did not have anything to do with the Pledge of Allegiance. Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister, authored the pledge in 1892 as part of an effort by President Benjamin Harrison to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America. Bellamy and the magazine he was associated with hoped to use the pledge to promote the sale of American flags to public schools in order to raise money for their work. A joint resolution of Congress codified the pledge into public law in 1942. Later, following many years of lobbying efforts by the Knights of Columbus and the American Legion, Congress amended the pledge in 1954 by adding the words “under God.” The amended version became official on Flag Day that year, but prior to then the pledge, even though written by a minister, did not mention God at all.

In late August, shortly after Senator McCain’s selection of Palin, the blogging started. The Daily Kos, a liberal blog, responded to Palin’s pledge to the pledge by describing her as a “female George Bush,” a phrase meant to describe someone who is not particularly bright and who has no literate sense of history. In mid-September, Ann Coulter, the conservative political analyst and lawyer, responded with her spin that Palin did not, by her comments, mean to imply that the “founding fathers’ wrote the pledge of allegiance, but rather that “the founding fathers believed this was a country ‘under God’.” “Which,” wrote Coulter, “um, it is.”

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the right is right (perhaps a stretch, but…). If Palin did not intend to imply that she thought the founders authored the pledge, she meant to emphasize that they believed wholeheartedly in the proposition that America is a country “under God,”  just like, one must also assume, Palin believes is the case today. It is certainly defensible to argue that most of the founders believed America needed to take God seriously. Even the deists, like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, hardly conventional Christians in the loosest consideration of that description, believed America was subject to the judgment of God. Evidence of the founders’ sense of God’s judgment on all nations and peoples is evident throughout their writings. Though they could connect God’s will to particular national enterprises, as in the case of the American Revolutionary War, they usually used language about the divine to emphasize accountability of the country (and all countries) to God.

Handwritten pledge

The founders were certainly comfortable with language about God, but they did not use the phrase “under God” (there is no written record of the founders ever using it). Instead, “under God” became commonplace in American public life only after World War II, particularly during the Cold War, when America sought to convince itself and the world that God was on America’s side in opposing “atheistic communism.” This twentieth-century notion, shared by Sarah Palin and other socially conservative Christians, emphasizes that “under God” means that God stands with America, that America is God’s chosen country. It developed naturally out of twentieth-century events, like the victories in two major world wars and the rapid accumulation of wealth after America successfully dealt with the difficulties of the Great Depression. The rise of the religious right since the 1970s has only solidified these assumptions.

This developing American belief in God’s automatic blessing also possesses significant roots in the previous century. The events surrounding American expansionism during the nineteenth century, including Manifest Destiny, imperialism, and rapid urbanization and industrialization, caused Americans to turn more comfortably to using God-language to describe America’s goodness and to communicate how America was better than any other country in the world because it was “under God.”

The point here is that the founders’ notion of what it meant to be a country that takes God seriously is, historically, quite distinct from the notion that operates in many Christian and political communities today, which is much more like saying God takes America seriously.

Palin’s pledge to the pledge and to “under God” has other interesting implications. In a 2004 Supreme Court decision about the constitutionality of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools, the Court temporarily avoided the issues in the case by stating that Michael Newdow, the atheist suing on behalf of his daughter, did not have standing to sue because he was not the custodial parent. The arguments of the case, however, contained an ironic twist that Sarah Palin has likely never considered. The two attorneys arguing to keep “under God” in the pledge did so by stating that the phrase “one nation under God” is simply a “political philosophy,” merely “ceremonial” in nature and not at all a “religious exercise.” Ironically, it was Newdow who argued that the words are truly religious and should be taken seriously. In fact, a brief submitted by religious leaders supported Newdow’s efforts to remove the phrase precisely because, as currently understood, the Pledge of Allegiance forces Christian children to take God’s name in vain every day. Using God’s name ritualistically, or in simply ceremonial fashion, is to take God’s name in vain.

Perhaps those like Sarah Palin who consider themselves committed Christians who believe in the holiness of God should reconsider their resolve to support national and cultural tendencies to use God’s name merely ceremoniously or as a way to provide divine sanction for all things American. Genuine concern for the holiness of God just might demand it.

– Mark G. Toulouse is professor of American religious history at Brite Divinity School at texas Christian University Fort Worth, Texas, and the author of GOD IN PUBLIC: FOUR WAYS AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY AND PUBLIC LIFE RELATE (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).

  • None of the Above

    I’m sorry but this woman is an idiot. She actually thinks the Pledge was written and recited by the founding fathers. The Pledge of Allegiance was written for the popular children’s magazine “Youth’s Companion” by Christian Socialist author and Baptist Minister Francis Bellamy on September 7, 1892. The owners of Youth’s Companion were selling flags to schools, and approached Bellamy to write the Pledge for their advertising campaign. Nothing more. It was marketed as a way to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus arriving in the Americas and was first published on the following day. “Under God” was added in 1954 by President Eisenhower in response to the “Red-Scare” of the atheist Communist Society of the USSR and after much lobbying by the Knights of Columbus. In my opinion, had it just become a national practice to say “under God” I’m sure there would not be such controversy today. But what President Eisenhower did was actually sign the wording into LAW (United States Code, Title 4, Chapter 1, §4) on June 15, 1954 stating: “These words [“under God”] will remind Americans that despite our great physical strength we must remain humble. They will help us to keep constantly in our minds and hearts the spiritual and moral principles which alone give dignity to man, and upon which our way of life is founded.” By doing so, the President made a direct violation to the 1st Amendment to the Constitution under the Establishment Clause which specifically states: “Congress shall make no LAW respecting an establishment of religion…” More fun facts about the Pledge of Allegiance include that Minister Bellamy’s original draft of the Pledge included the word EQUALITY along with the words LIBERTY and JUSTICE. At the time, the Board of Education did not want equality for women or blacks, so the word was removed. Also, the specified proper salute to the flag between 1892 and 1942 was “right arm fully extended with palm up towards the flag” This remained until it was realized that Nazi Germany had adopted the same salute. Our Pledge salute was then changed to “right hand over heart.” As far as Ms. Palin is concerned, I can’t wait to hear her say something about George Washington singing “The Star Spangled Banner” which incidentally did not become our National Anthem until 1931 and was written 15 years after President Washington’s passing. LOL

  • Rock

    Palin did not, by her comments, mean to imply that the “founding fathers’ wrote the pledge of allegiance, but rather that “the founding fathers believed this was a country ‘under God ~ I would say to: Mark C. Toulouse the author of this to go to PBS/God in America and you will find your are sadly mistaken on a few points…Also: PBS/God in the White House..

    Many fair thinking people do not want tax dollars going to PBS because of your Liberal leaning in your work..

    Even in your God in the Whie House, under Obama, PBS does not mention one time Muslim..
    You do not mention, Obama refused to put hand over heart in pic with Clinton, and others, during the Pledge of Allegiance…. You don’t mention Michelle Obama saying she was never proud of America and she does not understand how people can be so proud of the American flag..

    You won’t get one penny from me, that’s for sure..
    .