The Pledge of Allegiance: What It Means


W.J. Astore

I read old stuff.  Heck, I’m a historian: that’s what I’m supposed to do.  So I was reading an old pamphlet on “The Indiana World War Memorial” (circa 1940) and came across the Pledge of Allegiance as it was recited before McCarthyism reared its ugly head in the 1950s:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

You’ll notice what’s missing: that whole idea of “under God.”  Those words were added in the early 1950s as a way of contrasting God-fearing (and God-favored, if you’ll recall American exceptionalism) Americans to the godless Communists.

You’ll recall, of course, that our nation was founded in part on religious freedom.  The idea you could worship any god or gods you wanted to, or none at all.  We should return to the original “godless” pledge.  It served us quite well in World War II; it would serve us quite well today.

After all, Americans have no monopoly on God.  Furthermore, God does not uniquely bless us.  To believe that is to violate the real Ten Commandments, for to believe you are uniquely blessed by God is tantamount to raising yourself to the level of God.  No — as Abraham Lincoln wisely said, we must not assume that God is on our side; we must pray that we are on His side.

Speaking of the Ten Commandments, Tom Engelhardt at has a compelling list of his “ten commandments” in America’s ongoing war on terror.  Like Lincoln, Engelhardt is wise enough not to assume that God is always chanting “USA!  USA!”

Here are Engelhardt’s “ten commandments” for America and for a better world.  I urge you to read the rest of his article at this link:

1. Thou shalt not torture: Torture of every horrific sort in these years seems to have been remarkably ineffective in producing useful information for the state.  Even if it were proved effective in breaking up al-Qaeda plots, however, it would still have been both a desperately illegal (if unpunished) act and a foreign policy disaster of the first order.

2. Thou shalt not send drones to assassinate anyone, American or not: The ongoing U.S. drone assassination campaigns, while killing individual terrorists, have driven significant numbers of people in the backlands of the planet into the arms of terror outfits and so only increased their size and appeal. Without a doubt, such drone strikes represent a global war of, not on, terror. In the process, they have turned the president into our assassin-in-chief and us into an assassin nation.

3. Thou shalt not invade another country: D’oh!

4. Thou shalt not occupy another country: By the way, how did that work out the last two times the U.S. tried it?

5. Thou shalt not upgrade thy nuclear arsenal: The U.S. has now committed itself to a trillion-dollar, decades-long upgrade of its vast arsenal.  If any significant portion of it were ever used, it would end human life as we know it on this planet and so should be considered a singular prospective crime against humanity. After years in which the only American nuclear focus was on a country — Iran — with no nuclear weapons, that this has happened without serious debate or discussion is in itself criminal.

6. Thou shalt not intercept the communications of thy citizens or others all over the world or pursue the elaboration of a global surveillance state based on criminal acts: There seems to be no place the NSA has been unwilling to break into in order to surveil the planet.  For unimaginable reams of information that have seemingly been of next to no actual use, the NSA and the national security state have essentially outlawed privacy and cracked open various amendments to the Constitution.  No information is worth such a price.

7. Thou shalt not be free of punishment for crimes of state: In these years of genuine criminality, official Washington has become a crime-free zone.  No matter the seriousness of the act, none — not one committed in the name of the state in the post-9/11 era, no matter how heinous — has been brought into a courtroom.

8. Thou shalt not use a massive system of secret classification to deprive Americans of all real knowledge of acts of state: In 2011, the U.S. classified 92 million documents and the shroud of secrecy over the business of the “people’s” government has only grown worse in the years since.  Increasingly, for our own “safety” we are only supposed to know what the government prefers us to know.  This represents, of course, a crime against democracy.

9. Thou shalt not act punitively toward those who want to let Americans in on what the national security state is doing in their name: The fierce and draconian campaign the Obama administration has launched against leakers and whistleblowers is unprecedented in our history.  It is a growing challenge to freedom of the press and to the citizen’s right to know.

10. Thou shalt not infringe on the rights of the citizenry to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: Need I even explain?”

Why not make a pledge, America, to these “commandments”?  For they will help us to ensure liberty and justice for all.

4 thoughts on “The Pledge of Allegiance: What It Means

  1. Oh, there’s a good one! Can you imagine the outcry if someone tried to launch a campaign to expunge “under God” from the Pledge?!? Of course, to best of my knowledge, recitation of the Pledge is a voluntary tradition. It’s not “mandated” by the Federal Government, is it? But let’s say, for sake of argument, it IS mandated on a state level for public school systems. If some entity sprinkled some pixie dust (I think that’s what it would take!) in some State Legislature and they voted to respect the true spirit of the First Amendment (government shalt not impose any religious practice or language on the people) and excised that phrase, you can believe bands of armed citizens would quickly descend on that legislature in protest. Of course these would be the very same yahoos who 1.) claim this is “a Christian nation”; 2.) say the current POTUS is a Muslim born in Kenya; 3.) want to deny women control over their own reproductive functions in the name of God; 4.) are proud proponents of capital punishment; 5.) attempt to place copies of the “original” Ten Commandments in public places, at taxpayer upkeep; 6.) declare that “the Jews killed our Lord”; 7.) claim to be “strict interpreters” of the Constitution yet pervert the 2nd Amendment language about “a well regulated militia” into their having a right to unlimited dangerous (fully automatic, etc.) firearms; 8.) would prefer a big escalation of use of torture against “terrorists” (and how about those evil atheists?!?) to its being outlawed. [Mitt Romney, 2008 Presidential campaign: “We need to TRIPLE the size of Gitmo, not close it.”]

    The American Atheists, Inc., under leadership of the late (she and her son were murdered years ago, no one ever tried and convicted in the case) Madalyn Murray O’Hair and Freedom From Religion Foundation have never succeeded in getting “under God” removed from the Pledge. Occasionally some young person has the courage to opt out of reciting this nonsense, but that’s a truly tiny minority. Had my own consciousness been sufficiently elevated when I was in the public schools I would have been one of the dissenters. [Historic note: O’Hair DID succeed with the lawsuit that, in theory, stopped mandatory outright prayer in public schools. She boasted that this made her “The most hated woman in America.” But going up against “God” AND the flag?!? Good luck!!]

    • Oh, I agree, Greg. The somewhat sensible America of c.1940 is too far gone today.

      All these repetitive recitations and renditions of “God bless America” — under God — and so on: they reflect a nation that is far more insecure than the days of our parents (My dad was born in 1917; my mom in 1923). My parents didn’t walk around boasting about God blessing America; they were too busy working and trying to find food to eat.

    • What a great comment. Perhaps the pledge should be amended to “one nation, under our desks,” given all the fear-mongering in America.

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