Commentary

What’s Conservative about the Pledge of Allegiance?

It seems there’s no escaping America’s culture wars for the Supreme Court: On Tuesday, Oct. 14, the Court announced that it would hear Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, a case on the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance. Newdow arose out of a California parent’s attempt to get the phrase “under God” stripped from the Pledge, on the grounds that it represents an establishment of religion.

The Newdow case is a Republican campaign strategist’s dream. It gives G.O.P. candidates a grand old opportunity to position themselves as defenders of tradition against militant atheists and liberal judges. George Bush the elder used the Pledge to similar effect in his 1988 campaign against Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who had vetoed a bill requiring public school teachers to lead their classes in the Pledge.

It’s probably too much to ask politicians to reflect a little before they lunge for a political hot-button issue. But any conservatives so inclined should think about what they’re defending. What’s so conservative about the Pledge?

Very little, as it turns out. From its inception, in 1892, the Pledge has been a slavish ritual of devotion to the state, wholly inappropriate for a free people. It was written by Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist pushed out of his post as a Baptist minister for delivering pulpit-pounding sermons on such topics as “Jesus the Socialist.” Bellamy was devoted to the ideas of his more-famous cousin Edward Bellamy, author of the 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward. Looking Backward describes the future United States as a regimented worker’s paradise where everyone has equal incomes, and men are drafted into the country’s “industrial army” at the age of 21, serving in the jobs assigned them by the state. Bellamy’s novel was extremely popular, selling more copies than other any 19th century American novel except Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Bellamy’s book inspired a movement of “Nationalist Clubs,” whose members campaigned for a government takeover of the economy. A few years before he wrote the Pledge of Allegiance, Francis Bellamy became a founding member of Boston’s first Nationalist Club.

After leaving the pulpit, Francis Bellamy decided to advance his authoritarian ideas through the public schools. Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance for Youth’s Companion, a popular children’s magazine. With the aid of the National Education Association, Bellamy and the editors of Youth’s Companion got the Pledge adopted as part of the National Public School Celebration on Columbus Day 1892.

Bellamy’s recommended ritual for honoring the flag had students all but goosestepping their way through the Pledge: “At a signal from the Principal the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the Flag the military salute—right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it… At the words, ‘to my Flag,’ the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, towards the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.” After the rise of Nazism, this form of salute was thought to be in poor taste, to say the least, and replaced with today’s hand-on-heart gesture.

Hands on their hearts, more than 100 Republican members of Congress gathered on the steps of the Capitol to recite the pledge shortly after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for Newdow in June 2002. It was an effective photo-op, allowing the G.O.P. to cast itself as the defender of tradition. But not every tradition deserves defending. Though no one can be legally compelled to salute the flag, encouraging the ritual smacks of promoting a quasi-religious genuflection to the state. That’s not surprising, given that the Pledge was designed by an avowed socialist to encourage greater regimentation of society.

Regardless of the legal merits of Newdow’s case — which rests on a rather ambitious interpretation of the First Amendment’s Establishment clause — it’s ironic to see conservatives rally to such a questionable custom. Why do so many conservatives who, by and large, exalt the individual and the family above the state, endorse this ceremony of subordination to the government? Why do Christian conservatives say it’s important for schoolchildren to bow before a symbol of secular power? Indeed, why should conservatives support the Pledge at all, with or without “under God”?

Gene Healy is senior editor at the Cato Institute.