- - Thursday, June 11, 2015

Sunday is Flag Day, a time for Americans to show their respect for this stirring symbol adopted by the Continental Congress during the midst of the Revolutionary War. Respect, of course, is most readily observed through flying Old Glory, but Flag Day also brings to mind the rhetorical commitment that is embodied in the Pledge of Allegiance, first proclaimed by President Benjamin Harrison and used by public schools in Columbus Day observances in 1892. Then in 1942, the Pledge was officially adopted by a joint resolution of Congress.

Some organizations and assemblies, most notably, Congress, start their day with reciting the Pledge, and most states require recitation in public schools, with Wisconsin the only one to require it in private schools as well.

Not surprisingly, the actual implementation of the recitation laws vary widely. In California, for example, many schools do not observe a specific time for recitation, and state law only requires that some school activities relate to patriotism. And, according to court opinions, students can’t be required to stand or actually recite the Pledge.

But all this is expected, given the change that has taken place over 60 years since Congress, under President Dwight Eisenhower, was so upbeat about the Pledge that it added a religious component in 1954 (on Flag Day, of course) with the words “under God.” In Ike’s words, “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith .” In 1956 the phrase, “In God We Trust,” became the official motto of the United States, even though since 1865 it had appeared on American coinage.

Such government actions reflected the prevailing religious enthusiasm of the nation. Among the 10 most popular songs in 1953, for instance, were Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “Vaya Con Dios” and Frankie Laine’s “I Believe.” Kate Smith’s rendition of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” after sustaining Americans during World War II, was still alive and well. As for ministers, the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale not only sold books in record numbers — “A Guide to Confident Living” (1948) and “The Power of Positive Thinking” (1952) — but he founded his own magazine, Guideposts, which soon had a circulation of 800,000. Billy’s Graham’s Evangelical Association became a formidable religious organization. The Rev. Graham wrote books, a newspaper column that attracted 28 million readers daily, and, most of all, hosted crusades throughout the nation and world.

Religious scholar Will Herberg in “Protestant-Catholic-Jew,” written in the mid-1950s, noted that all three religious groups, for the first time in American history, were united in what he called the American Way of Life, which “is the characteristic American religion, undergirding American life and overarching American society despite all indubitable differences of region, section, culture, and class.” That American way of life, in other words, was patriotic piety.

To be sure, there was much about the 1950s that was not united in agreement upon the course of the nation in domestic and foreign affairs, especially in terms of dealing with the Cold War. But manifestation of the Pledge with a religious seam in that era exemplified hope for resolution of these differences. It may also have been the last time such law-supported language for non-wordly ideals was possible, given the separation of church and state stance underscored by subsequent judicial decisions.

No doubt, Americans have their national anthem to punctuate their patriotism, but the song is bereft of references to a higher authority. Lee Greenfield’s “God Bless the USA” sends patriotic chills up the spines of many Americans. Only the Pledge of Allegiance, however, is an outward, legally sanctioned recognition of a nation with religious and secular roots.

That the Pledge is not as ubiquitous in schools and other public ceremonies as it was two generations ago is no cause for alarm. Like its component parts — our republic, and the belief in liberty and justice for all — the Pledge is there for all who wish to cherish the singular blending of God and country. President Eisenhower said it best when “under God” was added to the Pledge in 1954:

“In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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