Aside from prayer at government meetings — an issue TheBlaze has covered extensively — there are few First Amendment issues more contentious than the Pledge of Allegiance.
Atheist activists have long opposed the pledge, because reciting it allows for “God” to be invoked in public venues. But there’s another factor at play making the issue even more complex: that public schoolchildren are often the ones instructed to say it.
And whenever kids are involved in First Amendment disputes, claims of indoctrination over a “captive audience” generally run rampant. The debate over the Pledge of Allegiance is no exception.
Where Does the Public Stand?
Considering the media coverage surrounding the many attempts over the years to remove the recitation of the pledge — or at least the “under God” language — from public schools, there generally isn’t much discussion surrounding where the American public stands on the issue.
When asked, “Should the words ‘under God’ be removed from or remain in the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States of America?,” 85 percent of respondents opted to keep the current wording. Only 8 percent of those surveyed said it should be removed.
In a Baptist Press article covering the results, LifeWay’s Bob Smietana wrote that 25 percent of Americans did express qualms over forcing students to say “under God,” saying they believe it is a violation of children’s rights (schools legally cannot make children say it).
Despite some who oppose the Pledge of Allegiance’s current language, LifeWay Research director Scott McConnell said that many Americans are more than comfortable with the tradition of keeping the words “under God” in the recitation.
“Most Americans have recited the pledge hundreds of times and are not inclined to memorize a different pledge,” McConnell said. “Changing it may just feel wrong. Most Americans say they believe in God or a higher being and feel comfortable having ‘under God’ in the pledge.”
Atheists Sue to Remove ‘Under God’
LifeWay’s survey data comes as atheist activists are taking new avenues to challenge the recitation. As Religion News Service has noted, using state constitutions to go after the pledge is a relatively new strategic approach — one that is being used in legal challenges in New Jersey and Massachusetts.
Rather than using the U.S. Constitution as their basis, which has failed in the past, the plaintiffs in both cases are claiming that the use of “under God” is a violation of the rights of atheists under state law.
In covering the Massachusetts case last year, Religion News Service reported that this intentional strategy follows a blueprint that was used by gay rights advocates a decade ago.
In 2003, Massachusetts became the first state to issue gay marriage licenses, using equal rights laws to secure a win. Later, other states followed this model. In the case of the pledge in these states, a win for atheist families could spark similar patterns and lawsuits in other localities.
The Pledge’s Complicated History
Regardless of where people stand on the inclusion of “under God,” there’s some important history worth noting. Consider that those two highly controversial words weren’t originally a part of the text when the pledge was penned in 1892.
In fact, the text has undergone several changes since then. It originally read, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Penned by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister (there’s obviously irony in noting that he was a faith leader who didn’t invoke God in the original text), the text has remained popular for more than 100 years.
Bellamy, himself a controversial figure, first published the Pledge in The Youth’s Companion, a family magazine. He was hired as a part of the periodical’s promotions department and, thus, tasked with coming up with a patriotic program to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in America.
The pledge developed as part of an effort to create a new salute for the flag that school kids could say in unison, Smithsonian Magazine explains. In the end, Bellamy was successful and completed the original text in just two hours. Millions of kids apparently took part in the mass recitation for the first time in October of that year.
After its completion, the pledge’s evolution quickly began, with its words changing over time. The first amendments came in 1923 and 1924, when the words “my flag” were changed to “the Flag of the United States of America.”
Fearing that incoming immigrants would salute their home flag instead of America’s, the words were purposefully amended. And Bellamy apparently didn’t like the changes, but was seemingly powerless to prevent them. This, of course, was only the beginning.
It wasn’t until 1942 that the U.S. government began to mainstream and integrate the recitation into the U.S. Flag Code. After America entered into World War II, Congress endorsed the pledge for the first time (it was at this time that the hand-over-heart gesture was adopted).
In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that schoolchildren could not be forced to recite the pledge. And in 1945, as the American Legion notes in its history of the proclamation, the official name, “The Pledge of Allegiance,” was adopted.
This court case was especially interesting considering the fact that “under God” — arguably the most contentious portion of the text — hadn’t yet been brought into the mix. That development didn’t emerge until 1952, when the Knights of Columbus joined other faith organizations and pushed Congress to add the Almighty into the Pledge.
And ever since the debate over “under God” has raged. What do you think about the pledge? Let us know below and read the complete history here.
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