Pledge Reflects Nation's Anxieties

to the flag (book cover)The history of the Pledge of Allegiance isn't as straightforward as one might think, according to a new book by Willamette University Professor Richard Ellis.

"The Pledge speaks to the American values of liberty and justice for all, which resonates with people to this day," said Ellis, "but it also speaks to American anxieties about inadequate patriotism and newcomers."

Written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, the Pledge reflected native-born Protestant fears of increasing Catholic and Jewish immigration to the United States, said the author of "To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance." Many citizens shared the view that the rising flood of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe - with their different ethnic and religious backgrounds - was threatening to destroy national unity and identity.

"Most Western democracies don't have children start each day by pledging allegiance to their country," Ellis said. "At the turn of the century, many felt that a daily recitation of allegiance would help inoculate immigrant school children against radical social ideas."

In 2002, when a federal judge ruled that the words "under God" were unconstitutional, violating separation of church and state, many Americans felt that the decision did violence to one of our most sacred patriotic rites. But according to Ellis, the words "under God" are a relatively recent addition, tacked on in 1954 at the height of the McCarthy era, to differentiate the United States from the atheistic communists.

For more than a century, the Pledge has been inserted into a fervent national dialogue about who we are as a people, and what it means to be an American.

"Those most fearful about threats to our national identity," Ellis observed, "have often been the most insistent on the importance of patriotic rituals."

The Mark O. Hatfield Professor of Politics at Willamette University, Ellis has authored a number of books on American political culture, the presidency and the initiative process.