A recent federal court decision challenging the use of the phrase “under God” as a violation of the Constitution’s separation of Church and State has led to howls of protest from rightwingers who have some powerful friends on the U.S. Supreme Court. I wonder if the rightwing, including Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, would be quick to rush to defend the Pledge of Allegiance if they knew it was written by a prominent Christian Socialist, the Reverend Francis Bellamy, who meant it as a call for national unity based on equality and social justice.
If they knew that, they might try to scrap the pledge itself, keeping only the “One nation under God” phrase, which was put in by the Republican 82nd Congress in 1954, at the height of McCarthyism, when denunciations of “Godless Communism” and such pieties as “the family that prays together, stays together” filled mass media, along with appeals to shop on Christmas and other religious holidays.
Bellamy, an active Christian socialist and educator, opposed racism and was, like his brother Edward, the author of the best-selling Utopian socialist novel, Looking Backward, an active supporter of women’s suffrage and women’s rights. Edward Bellamy also was the leader of a middle-class movement of “Nationalist clubs,” in the 1890s, which popularized socialist ideas, much as England’s middle-class-led Fabian Society did at the same time.
Ousted from his Boston Baptist pulpit because of his socialist sermons in 1891, Francis Bellamy, who had friends and allies in middle-class professional circles, continued his work as a writer and educator. While working as assistant editor of the Youth’s Companion, a popular magazine for young people, Bellamy first published his pledge in August, 1892. Bellamy, who also served as the chair of a committee of state school superintendents of the National Education Association, preparing for the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ expedition, turned the pledge into a school ceremony and flag salute for the celebrations.
Scholarship shows that Bellamy had planned to use the word “equality,” along with “liberty and justice for all,” in his pledge, but dropped the idea, believing rightly that the committee, which was composed of state school superintendents, would drop the pledge entirely if the word equality, which they associated with radicalism and equal rights for African Americans and women, was used.
Bellamy, who was elected Vice President for Education for The Society of Christian Socialists in 1889, remained an active Christian socialist, which meant that he saw socialism with its commitment to cooperation and equality as a true expression of the Christian Gospel, rather than capitalism, which he associated with the selfishness and greed of the money changers whom Jesus drove from the temple. For Bellamy and other non-Marxist socialists, socialism would triumph through education and reform, rather than working-class revolution.
For over three decades, Bellamy’s pledge read, “I pledge allegiance to my flag, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” When a “National Flag Conference,” under the control of the right-wing American Legion and Daughters of the American Revolution, changed this to read, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,” Bellamy, who was no admirer of the Legion, the DAR, the administration of Calvin Coolidge or any coercive definition of “Americanism,” unsucessfully protested.
Bellamy had passed away when Congress further adulterated his pledge with the phrase “under God” 30 years later, as rightwing forces were once more in the ascendancy in the United States.
His granddaughter stated at the time that he would have definitely opposed this change, and, for that matter, all forms of McCarthyism, since he himself had been a victim of it when he was driven from his Boston pulpit for preaching Christian socialism in 1891, decades before Joe McCarthy was born.
As a final note, Francis Bellamy spent his last years like many senior citizens in Florida, but stopped attending Church entirely, angered by the racist prejudices he found there. Had he lived into the 1950s, the same politicians who put “Under God” into the pledge he drafted would probably have blacklisted him. Had he been born 50 years later and lived long enough to vote in the 2000 elections in Florida, he, like thousands of others, would have likely been disenfranchised by cheap punch-card ballots and consulting firms hired by the Bush campaign to purge the registration rolls of anyone likely to oppose Bush. If he was alive today, I am sure that he would be defending the civil rights of both American citizens and residents of the country who have been subject to arrests, searches and seizures in violation of the Bill of Rights in the name of the war against terrorism.
Norman Markowitz is a Marxist historian in New Jersey. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org