Pledging Allegiance

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Pledge of Allegiance was adopted by Congress as the national pledge in 1942, with the current version, including "under God", being accepted in 1954. Is it shocking that our nation held together without a national pledge for 166 years? Of course not. So why is it deemed so valuable and necessary today?

You may not know that the Pledge was written by a Baptist minister. You may be further surprised to learn that the composer, Francis Bellamy, was also a Christian socialist. He was an employee of The Youth's Companion, the magazine that published the original Pledge in 1892. This magazine provided schools with American flags in exchange for the use of their students as magazine salesmen. Clearly, Bellamy had a vested interest in publishing his Pledge.

Bellamy called the Pledge an "inoculation" to protect us from the "virus" of radicalism (Beato, G., "Face the Flag", Reason, Dec. 16, 2010). He later wrote, "A democracy like ours cannot afford to throw itself open to the world where every man is a lawmaker, every dull-witted or fanatical immigrant admitted to our citizenship is a bane to the commonwealth; where all classes of society merge insensibly into one another."

In 1919, the state of Washington passed a law requiring schools to make the Pledge recitation mandatory. This sentence espousing "liberty...for all" was now something that a portion of Americans were required by law to recite aloud. In 1935, hundreds of children, mostly of Jehovah's Witnesses, chose to be expelled from school rather than bow down to this law. The Supreme Court ruled against them in 1940, before Congress had even adopted the Pledge, saying that national unity was more important than individual liberty. Some Jehovah's Witnesses were beaten and physically maimed for their stance against the Pledge, sometimes right in front of police. The Supreme Court reversed their decision in 1943. Apparently they decided the U.S. shouldn't look quite so much like Germany.

Whether or not this historical view alters your opinion on the importance of our national pledge or whether citizens should be expected to recite it, we as the church should examine whether we should pledge allegiance to anything or anyone aside from God. The children of the Jehovah's Witnesses in 1935 remind me of Shadrach, Meschach and Abed-Nego when they refused to "pledge allegiance" to Nebuchadnezzar by bowing to his image in Daniel 3. It is clear from this Bible story that God's people are not to give themselves to another person or nation. We are to submit to the governments established by God, but we are not to "bow down" by declaring that we belong, for we have been purchased by the blood of Christ.

By pledging our allegiance to a flag and a republic, we give ourselves over to a nation, to a people, especially to those who govern. We declare that we approve of whatever those who govern decide. We say that we support involuntary military service should the need arise, that forcing our youth to resist evil people through violence is admissible because they've sworn an oath. We say that we will tolerate any sort of privacy invasion that is necessary if the State has deemed it so, even if it means our elderly and children are sexually violated in the middle of every one of our airports. We have sworn allegiance; therefore, we stand behind all that America, or rather her government, does.

But what did our Lord teach? "Do not swear at all" (Matthew 5:34). God does not even permit His children to swear by heaven (v. 34), so why would He permit the blind nationalism we indulge in when we recite a pledge to the U.S.A.? Surely, my brothers, this is not right.

"But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No.' For whatever is more than these is from the evil one" (v. 37). The apostle James echoed this teaching with emphasis: "But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No,' lest you fall into judgment" (James 5:12). Clearly the words we say have meaning, and we will be held to them.

By swearing an oath of allegiance to a nation or any person, we ensnare ourselves into supporting, if not performing, evil acts that we otherwise would find repugnant. This puts our hearts and our conduct in conflict, because when we do this, we can no longer say with Peter, "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). For, sadly, we have pledged our allegiance to the nation. This is the devil's trick, and, according to James, we bring God's judgment upon ourselves when we fall for it. It is quite possible that Francis Bellamy invited judgment on our nation by luring the people into taking an oath to the U.S.

God's Word instructs us to be subject to the governing authorities that He has appointed (Romans 13:1). Never once does our Lord tell us to support or be a part of what the governing authorities do, whether good or bad. The church must unify with itself, not to the State. There are enough evil men in our government and evil deeds done by our government that the church must remain separate, giving neither support nor approval. God's kingdom is greater than any other, and we are its citizens first and foremost. We must render to Caesar what is Caesar's (obedience when it does not conflict with Christ's law) and to God what is God's (utmost obedience, worship, and allegiance).

[Originally published July 7, 2011, on the blog On Faith and Authority]