Wednesday, 27 June 2018

free exercise clause

Our antiquarian and historian JF Ptak’s latest post really piqued our interest on the matter of the religious neutrality of the framers of the country’s constitution and of the custom of pledging one’s allegiance. The oath of fealty was originally composed by a Union Army officer to instil a sense of patriotism during the American civil war. CPT George Thatcher Balch’s version was as follows:

We give our heads and hearts to God and our country; one country, one language, one flag!

For the occasion of the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World, the National Education Association commissioned socialist preacher, author and educator Francis Julius Bellamy to compose something which was less juvenile and dignified that could be included not just as opening ablutions in the classroom but also for sessions of congress, sporting events, etc.
Noting the how incorporating documents of America had been carefully crafted to avoid religious terminology, Bellamy wanted to make sure that he was not creating an invocation either. We especially appreciated the succinct and lucid legal citation of the US Supreme Court’s landmark 1878 case Reynolds v. United States as a means to illustrate the government’s legal and proper stance towards religious convictions. Civic law should not be subverted or made to align with religious ones or be allowable as defence for not dutifully discharging one’s legal obligations (the case involved polygamy), for to do otherwise and elevate belief above the law of the land would in effect make every individual “a law unto himself” and remove government regulation and ability to enforce the law altogether. Bellamy’s first version, timed to be recited in fifteen seconds, went as follows:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Following the French cri du coeur, Bellamy had considered using the words equality and fraternity instead but thought it would be highly hypocritical, considering the way African Americans and women were treated in 1892. After much lobbying by the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Knights of Columbus, the pledge assumed its present form in 1954 to include the phrase “under God,” the swearing of the pledge no longer punctuated by a salute rendered as that custom was removed by an act of congress in December of 1942, having decided that the gesture was too similar to the Nazi salute.