Earlier version of the pledge offers a more fitting message

September 23, 2005|By Robert A. Strong

The nation's courts have once again taken up the status of God in the Pledge of Allegiance.

This is not the first time, nor likely to be the last, when the content of the pledge becomes the subject of national debate and judicial deliberation.

Amid the hoopla over whether "under God" should be in or out of the pledge, we tend to forget that the words we say to our national flag have been changed several times and for a variety of reasons. What would happen if we ever decided to pay allegiance to the pledge as it was originally written?

In the latest go-round Sept. 14, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled that reciting the pledge in public schools is unconstitutional because its reference to one nation "under God" violates schoolchildren's right to be "free from a coercive requirement to affirm God." The case was brought by the same atheist, Dr. Michael Newdow, whose previous battle against the words "under God" was rejected last year by the Supreme Court on procedural grounds.

The acknowledged author of the pledge, Francis Bellamy, was a Baptist minister whose sermons were too radical for his Boston congregation. After stepping down from the pulpit, he became an editor of a popular children's magazine and chaired a national committee preparing a program for public schools to use in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World and the opening of a world's fair in Chicago.

The words that Mr. Bellamy wrote for Columbus Day, 1892, were published in Youth's Companion magazine. Civic organizations and school districts across the country embraced them. The pledge was altered immediately after it was written, again in 1924 and, most notably, by Congress when it added "under God" in 1954.

Mr. Bellamy started his pledge with phrasing that suited his youthful audience: "I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands." A second "to" - before "the republic" - was added in October 1892, but the key phrase here is "my flag." It's simple, personal, elegant and arguably superior to the more formal locution - "the flag of the United States of America" - that was later adopted, against Mr. Bellamy's wishes.

In the original version, the flag does not belong to the nation; it belongs to each of us.

The revised language has the unfortunate effect of separating us from the object of our allegiance. It makes the flag more distant, flying high above our public squares or hovering in the corners of our classrooms.

"My" is more intimate, more immediately meaningful to children and more likely to remind us that each of us has some ownership of our national ideals.

With or without "my," Americans never pledge allegiance to the flag alone. It is always a symbol for something else. Never a symbol for place, fatherland, bloodline or dynasty - the flag, my flag, your flag, stands for a particular form of government.

Keeping the republic during our first century as a nation was no small matter. The string of words that Mr. Bellamy placed after "for which it stands" conveyed, in remarkably concise language, what the struggle for the heart of this republic had been about.

In Mr. Bellamy's final draft, we were "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

But in earlier versions, he added "equality" to his list of descriptive terms. He reportedly dropped it in deference to educators on his commemorative committee who were uncomfortable with equality for women and African-Americans.

We paid dearly in the Civil War for the establishment of one "indivisible" nation, but in that struggle we only partially achieved racial equality. The painful path to justice in this country continues to twist and turn around the goal of equality and the limits of liberty.

The new court ruling will force us to re-examine the relationship between church and state and the wisdom of Congress to put "under God" into the pledge 23 years after Mr. Bellamy died in 1931. That is obviously an important debate, but there are other issues embedded in the pledge and in the story of its creation.

Would we be better off if we reverted to the original version? It was:

"I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty, equality and justice for all."

Robert A. Strong is the Wilson professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.

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