The Sioux Falls school district recently found itself in a bit of a kerfuffle. Until recently, only elementary students were required to say the Pledge of Allegiance each day. The district expanded this to middle school students but excluded high school students. Eventually the school board capitulated to those in favor of mandatory Pledge recitation.
Thus controversy. Did the board originally abandon patriotism in the high schools, or does the decision to make the Pledge mandatory represent an imposition on the rights of high school students?
It may be worth looking at the Pledge’s origin. The Pledge was written in the 1890s by ardent Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy, cousin of Edward Bellamy who wrote the socialist novel “Looking Backward.” Francis Bellamy intended the Pledge to create a religious-like devotion to the nation state. Through repetition Bellamy hoped that the Pledge would be a kind of sacrament to the state. As Bellamy put it, “It is the same way with the catechism, or the Lord’s Prayer.”
Bellamy considered putting in the slogan of the French Revolution, “liberty, equality, fraternity,” but thought people may balk at the idea of equality among races.
Originally the Pledge was accompanied with what became known as the “Bellamy Salute.” This salute ran out of favor in the 1940s as it was the exact same extended arm, open hand salute as used by the Nazis in Germany. The site of children making the visual equivalent of the Nazi Salute to the American flag became a bit uncomfortable. The Bellamy Salute was replaced with the hand over the heart.
The Supreme Court long ago ruled that it is unconstitutional to force people to recite the Pledge. Certainly if one objects to the Pledge it is not too much to ask to simply stand reverently yet silently.
There is a famous piece of Scripture in which Christ is asked whether it is just to pay taxes to Caesar. Christ famously answers, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.” The question that the Christian might want to ask is after one has given God His due, what is left for Caesar? Are their parts of our lives over which God is not sovereign?
If one wants to instill patriotism, and this is a laudable goal, one should start not with producing religious-like devotion to abstract ideas or worldly symbols. One should start with loving one’s own home. The root of patriotism is, of course, love of the father, the “pater” in Latin. One should love one’s own family, neighbors, and the land one sees every day. These things are not abstract, but real.
Walter Berns wrote many years ago that patriots are not born, they are made. Let’s teach our students to love their own home, but not turn it into an object of worship.
Jon D. Schaff is a professor of political science at Northern State University in Aberdeen. The views he expresses are his own and not those of the university.