With the 4th of July just around the corner, I’ve been thinking about the Pledge of Allegiance. For over a century, American children have sworn loyalty to our flag and to the idea of a country where “liberty and justice for all” is commonplace.
Some history of the Pledge of Allegiance with a brief timeline: The Reverend Francis Bellamy wrote the original Pledge in 1892. It first appeared in a pamphlet called “The Youth’s Companion.” Bellamy intended the pledge to be one size fits all in that any country could adhere to it in principle. Here’s the original wording:
I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
In 1923 the pledge was changed to include the words “the Flag of the United States of America,” erasing Bellamy’s utopian globalism.
In 1954 President Eisenhower evoked God as a response to the threat of Communism. Bellamy’s daughter objected to adding the words “under God.” Nevertheless, Congress approved the revision.
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
The pledge takes me back to what I once thought was my father’s Ivory Snow patriotism. But patriotism is complicated by burden and pride. The more I think about Dad’s national fealty, the more I realize that his patriotism was mixed with a fierce will to serve and protect our country.
I remember my childhood home festooned with the Stars and Stripes flying from the windows on every American holiday. In my 21st century mindset the word allegiance also calls up an old-fashioned concept that can go awry with no room for error. Think fundamentalism, terrorism.
All of this remembering puts me in a midrashic mood. Here is my take on words said early and often in classrooms across America. Here is a legacy that I hope will inspire Anna and Adam to take the Pledge of Allegiance off autopilot so that they find their own meaning in those well-known words.
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America
I first memorized those words in Miss Blake’s pre-school. Miss Blake lived in a house that might have once been in a fairy tale. Her school was up the street and a million miles away from my house. The living room and dining room were the classroom and playroom respectively. The backyard had seesaws, a sandbox and swings galore. In what was essentially a two-room schoolhouse, I first pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America before I knew what a pledge was or what that rubbery word allegiance actually meant.
Thirty years later, the words immediately came back to me in Anna’s kindergarten class. After sitting in a chair sized for a five-year old, I maintained my balance and stood up to pledge. Hand over heart. Just like Miss Blake taught me. Note, that Bellamy’s vision of honoring the flag included a military salute with the right arm extended and the palm down. The gesture, eerily similar to the Nazi salute, was jettisoned during World War II.
And to the republic for which it stands
I think our republic stands for inclusiveness, but American inclusivity is often as convoluted as trying to remember a dream. When Bellamy first wrote the pledge my paternal grandparents were infants born in the Ukraine and passing through Ellis Island to take their turn at American prosperity.
One Nation Under God
When God was ushered into the pledge in 1954 my maternal grandparents heard rumblings from a rickety dictatorship that would soon give way to a government painting Cuba in un carmin encendido—the blazing red of communism that President Eisenhower feared.
The first thing I think of is a prime number—a number that can’t be divided by any other number. I believe that America’s indivisibility is steadfast and humane. All who are hungry come and eat. All who are needy come and celebrate America with us.
With Liberty and Justice for All
God joyfully listens to the Sh’ma—Judaism’s central tenant—in 70 languages making English Only signs in this country highly irrelevant. To my mind, proclamations of American Owned on the marquees of small motels that I recently saw seeding parts of Route 1 in Florida replace signage blaring: No Jews, No Blacks, No Dogs.
Listen up America: “The Lord is God, the Lord is One.” Bearing those words in mind, we circle back to the pledge to stay as one nation under God in a country always aiming to be indivisible .