In following the controversy about the uses of the Pledge of Allegiance in our county, I’ve noticed that some people seem to think that attitudes toward pledge recitation reflect “left-wing” vs. “right-wing” ideological differences. The following history suggests that such interpretations are much too simple:
The Pledge of Allegiance was written and promulgated by Francis Bellamy. Mr. Bellamy was a Baptist minister who was a leader of the Society for Christian Socialism. He was a cousin and ally of Edward Bellamy, whose immensely popular novel, Looking Backward, looked forward to a socialist America by the end of the 20th century. Francis lost his job at the Bethany Baptist Church because of this socialistic preaching and activity.
He was hired by Youth’s Companion, a leading children’s magazine; one of his first activities was to lead an effort to have the American flag flown in every American school on Columbus Day, 1892, with all children joining in a national ritual to pledge allegiance to the flag. Bellamy wrote the text of the Pledge. He consciously used the phrase “liberty and justice for all” as a way of defining the meaning of America in terms that would embrace values of brotherhood and equality, in contrast with what he saw as the excessive individualism and injustice of the Gilded Age.
People of widely divergent beliefs have helped shape our shared symbols of patriotism. The uses and meanings of these symbols have always been argued over. Those who have tried to turn such symbols into a means to exclude or punish non-conformists have often ended up in disgrace as flag-waving scoundrels. The Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that efforts to force recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance are unconstitutional. Gail Marshall’s request that her advisory commission itself decide whether to make the Pledge was squarely in line with that Court ruling and with longstanding American distaste for coerced patriotism.
Richard Flacks is a professor of sociology at UCSB.