The Pledge of Allegiance
Is it Appropriate for Christians?
A young minister in the state of Texas wrote me back in August about an issue that has come to trouble him to some degree, and he sought my advice on the matter. His email, in part, states, "Brother Maxey, It is absolutely amazing how parenting forces us to look at various theological issues anew. My current dilemma comes from the fact that my young daughter is about to start kindergarten. It is the practice of her school to lead the children in the Pledge of Allegiance as they begin each school day. There was a time when I would have given no second thought to this practice, and, if forced to defend the Pledge, I would have placed great weight on the idea that the 'under God' phrase modifies the Pledge in such a way as to indicate that national allegiance is subservient to our allegiance to God. However, I am now questioning the propriety of Christians pledging their allegiance to anything other than God Himself. So my primary question to you is: does our citizenship in the kingdom of God preclude our allegiance to the 'principalities and powers' of this world, thus making one's reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance a conflict of interest (at best) or something akin to treason (at worst)? Brother Maxey, I know that your ministry, both locally in New Mexico and globally via your Reflections, consumes a great deal of time, and that my posing of this question to you demonstrates a degree of presumption on my part. However, if you should see fit to entertain my question, I will read your response with gratefulness. Thank you!"
Although there is some evidence to suggest that James B. Upham [1845-1905] penned a rough draft of a patriotic pledge in 1888 that was later adapted, most historians credit its composition to Francis Bellamy [1855-1931], a Baptist minister and a Christian Socialist. Many considered Bellamy too radical for the pulpit, as he preached such sermons as "Jesus the Socialist" and "The Socialism of the Primitive Church." Bellamy was ultimately removed from the pulpit of the Bethany Baptist Church in Boston for his views. This man was also very much interested in public education, which he strongly believed to be the responsibility of the state, and was an official with the National Education Association. Bellamy composed the Pledge of Allegiance to be a part of a greatly anticipated school flag raising ceremony marking the 400th anniversary of the historic arrival of Columbus in America. It was written in August, 1892 and first appeared on September 8, 1892 in a magazine titled "The Youth's Companion." It was first recited in public at the flag ceremony on October 12, 1892. In its original form, the words were: "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." He thought about adding the word "equality" to the phrase "liberty and justice for all," but eventually decided against it because he felt some would object since it would seemingly suggest that women and blacks were to be regarded as "equal" to men and whites.
Over time, the Pledge has undergone several revisions. Immediately after its first recitation, for example, the word "to" was added prior to the words "the Republic." In the year 1923, the First National Flag Conference changed the wording from "my Flag" to "the Flag of the United States." The year following that, the Second National Flag Conference added the words "of America" to the phrase. Then, on December 28, 1945, Public Law 79-287 declared this combination of words to be the official "Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag." In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower encouraged Congress (as did the Knights of Columbus and other religious groups) to add the words "under God" to the Pledge. By a joint resolution of the United States Congress, Public Law 83-396 was signed by the President on Flag Day (June 14, 1954), thus giving us the Pledge of Allegiance as it reads today. In August, 1954, Eisenhower wrote a letter in which he said, "These words ('under God') will remind Americans that despite our great physical strength we must remain humble. They will help us to keep constantly in our minds and hearts the spiritual and moral principles which alone give dignity to man, and upon which our way of life is founded."
Interestingly, the original "hand salute" to the flag during the recitation of the Pledge, which was adopted in the late 1800's, was an outstretched right arm toward the flag. This was known as the "Bellamy Salute." However, when the Nazi forces adopted this same gesture as their salute, President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the hand-over-the-heart gesture instead (for civilians), and the regular military hand salute for those in uniform. Needless to say, there have been many challenges to the Pledge over the years, with such legal challenges continuing even to this present time. Atheists, for example, object to the phrase "under God," and want it taken out. Some religious groups, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, believe that swearing loyalty to any power lesser than God and showing reverence to an object (like the flag) constitutes "idolatry." They contended that their freedom of religion was being violated. In 1940 the Supreme Court ruled (Minersville School District vs. Gobitis) that students in public schools could be compelled to recite the Pledge, regardless of religious convictions. This ruling, as one would certainly expect, was later overturned, and the reciting of the Pledge is now optional.
Patriotism is a very personal, and also a very subjective, emotion. This remarkably intense, and even zealous, love for one's own people and/or nation has moved men and women to astonishing acts of self-sacrifice and feats of heroism. It is a deep-seated devotion, dedication and consecration to a cause infinitely greater than oneself. There are patriots in every country, not just our own, as this noble fervor truly knows no national, cultural or racial barriers. But true patriotism goes much, much deeper than mere emotionalism or nationalistic zeal; it is emotion expressed with a sense of the ultimate good of one's people. Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) wrote, "The noble kind of patriotism aims at ends that are worthy of the whole of mankind." Richard Aldington (1892-1962) described patriotism as "a lively sense of collective responsibility." Simply stated: patriots are zealots, but not all zealots are patriots.
In every nation under the sun there are emblems that give visible and audible expression to these feelings, both individually and collectively. We have special days that commemorate meaningful times in our nation's history. We have monuments, both to individuals and events. We have symbols. And we have banners or flags. They tend to be rallying points for a people; they help us focus, especially during times of national challenge or crisis. Without them the sense of cohesiveness of a people is greatly diminished. Yet, if one's patriotism is not firmly established upon greater eternal Truths than mere nationalism alone, one's patriotism is misguided at best. The above mentioned Aldington noted, "Nationalism is a silly cock crowing on its own dunghill." John Morley (1838-1923) stated it this way: "To deride patriotism marks impoverished blood, but to extol it as an ideal or an impulse above truth and justice, at the cost of the general interests of humanity, is far worse." Let me phrase the concept thusly: true patriotism will motivate one to die for his country and countrymen if called upon to do so, but it will also move one to speak out against and actively seek to reform one's people and nation when they have collectively chosen to pursue a course that is leading them toward great harm or even destruction. There have been times in the history of every nation when some of its greatest patriots were, at the time of their acts of patriotism, perceived to be it greatest traitors. Only much later, through historical hindsight, is the value of their sacrifice seen for what it actually was. Needless to say, the same has been true in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ throughout its history. In other words, it's not always the "party parrots" who are the spiritual patriots ... quite often the true spiritual patriots are the ones deemed to be the "heretics."
But, returning to our topic -- I personally have no problem with expressions of loyalty to one's people or nation, as long as these expressions are undergirded with greater eternal principles. I can personally, with a clear conscience, pledge my loyalty and allegiance to a country that truly seeks to be a united nation "under God." Indeed, all of God's people, throughout the world, in every nation, should seek to influence their own people to achieve this goal: a people truly committed to living "under God" ... under His sovereignty. I have no problem pledging my allegiance to such a God-focused people. I also have no problem speaking out against my people and nation should they abandon that resolve (and I have done so). A nation that is seeking "liberty and justice for all," is a nation seeking to promote divine principles. I can support such a people and cause. When a country loses its way, the patriots will rise up to direct it back onto the paths of righteousness; when a country is walking those paths, or at least seeking to do so as best it can, such a nation is worthy of our loyalty ... and patriots will give it.
Yes, spiritually speaking, we should consider our citizenship as being in the kingdom of our God, rather than in any earthly kingdom, and our ultimate loyalty is to the King of kings, rather than to any earthly ruler. Thus, our submission to any authority lesser than GOD is conditional in nature. Indeed, it can be nothing else!! We submit to all lesser authority only to the degree that such submission does not violate our primary allegiance to our Sovereign. Therefore, I can easily pledge allegiance to my country as long as such allegiance does not in any way diminish my allegiance to the Lord. I may serve my country as long as such service in no way takes away from my service to the kingdom of God. It is my conviction that one can, to a large degree, do both (although this will clearly vary from nation to nation). Some of you may differ with this perception, and to you I would simply say -- you must live by the dictates of your own conscience, not by the dictates of mine (and vice versa).
I was born in this great country (in Arkansas) and I love it dearly. It has been good to me personally. I was very proud to serve my nation for six years in the armed forces (in fact, I volunteered, while others sought deferments). I spent two years in Vietnam, and many times was not sure I would ever return alive to my homeland. I looked into men's eyes, both friend and foe, as they died on the field of battle, and those images will stay with me the rest of my life. And yet, I would not change a moment of any of it, for these experiences have all contributed to making me who and what I am today. Whenever the "Stars and Stripes" pass by me, even to this very day, my hand goes immediately over my heart and my eyes tear up. And yet, my love for my people and my country is so great that it genuinely pains me when I see this nation turning increasingly away from God, and I have spoken out publicly against such dangerous and deadly national trends. I have the same concern for the Family of God whenever and wherever I discover my beloved brethren increasingly abandoning grace for law and freedom for bondage. And, yes, I also speak out publicly against such dangerous and deadly trends. Some of my brethren tend to regard my actions as "traitorous;" I prefer to see them as "patriotic" (spiritually speaking). Jesus informed His disciples that there was no greater love than for a man to be willing to lay down his life for another (a love which Jesus showed). Right up there with it is the love that motivates one to live for another in such a way as to reform and/or save their life from certain ruin. That kind of love and devotion is just as "patriotic" as the former, both nationally and spiritually.
The historical reality is: we are a people who initially founded our great nation upon the premise that united under the leadership of God Almighty we would pursue and protect our right to liberty, justice and the pursuit of happiness. As a child in the public schools I remember daily pledging allegiance to the flag which not only stood for our nation, but also for the many hopes, dreams and divine principles of our people. My own personal conviction is that such a Pledge should continue to be part of the daily routine of our school children, and I would encourage the above reader who emailed me his concern to consider allowing his young daughter to recite this pledge at school, as millions have done before her, and will do after her. In conclusion, let me share with you a Christian pledge of allegiance that I wrote back in 1995 while preaching for the Honolulu Church of Christ in the beautiful state of Hawaii. I pray that, just as we the people of the United States of America daily recite the aforementioned secular pledge, that we, as the beloved people of God, might recite the following spiritual pledge as well. May God help us to live by it every day of our lives.
I pledge allegiance to the Father
of the united saints of the kingdom,
-- and to the Redeemer
by Whom we stand --
One Body, unified in Spirit,
indivisible, with liberty
and love for all.
By Al Maxey, via Reflections #370 October 23,2008
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