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One nation under God

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


You hear the words all the time; you even repeat them at least once in a while.    But like many things in life, it’s become a ritual; something you do by rote, without really thinking about it.  Gentle reader, allow me to take the next few minutes to challenge you to the think about it next time.


The Pledge didn’t start with the nation; it was the result of a conscious effort to have such a pledge in preparation of the nation’s major celebration in 1892.  If you think about it for just a moment, you’ll realize what the continent would be celebrating in 1892; got it?  I’ll give you a hint; it was the 400th anniversary.  That did it; you’re right.  It was a celebration of Columbus’ discovery of the New World.  There are several of us who remember the almost embarrassed recognition Columbus got in 1992; a lot of things happened to the national spirit over that century, but that’ll have to be the subject of another post.


Over the years, the pledge has been modified four times, most recently in 1954.  Until the 1940’s, the pledge was said not with a hand over your heart (or, as president Obama has been picture, with hands clasped nonchalantly in front of you), but with it stretched out in front of you as if you were hailing a cab.  With what was going on in Europe and with the United States’ entrance into World War Two, it’s not surprising the salute was changed.


With a nearly 120 year history, it’s easy to see how something that was repeated daily became a routine; something you did without really thinking about the words you were saying.  The best evidence that it is just a ritual, for the most part, is in how we say it.  Grammatically speaking, the phrase, a single, fairly short sentence, has only a few commas.  The way it’s commonly recited, it has a lot more.  Count them with me:


I pledge allegiance (comma) to the flag (comma) of the United States of America (comma) and to the Republic for which it stands (comma) one nation (comma) under God (comma) indivisible (comma) with liberty and justice for all.


That’s seven commas; quite a few for such a short sentence.  If we did it grammatically (as I did in the opening sentence), it would go like this:


I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands (comma) one nation under God (comma) indivisible (comma) with liberty and justice for all.


That’s just three; less than half as many as when we say it out loud.  It could be argued there’s one before “and to the Republic” but I clearly remember my high school English teacher telling me you don’t put a comma in front of the word “and” unless it introduces a new subject.  It also could be argued that the comma before “one nation” should be a semi-colon but that’s probably splitting hairs.  The point is, to make it easier to memorize we’ve broken into bite-size bits what is really a memorable statement of commitment.  As a result, it tends to be something that touches only the surface of our minds, and it deserves better.


One of the most egregious casualties of this process, interestingly enough, involves the most recent of those four modifications I mentioned before.  The phrase, ”under God,” was added to reflect the sentiment in the Declaration that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness  were rights endowed by our Creator.  Echoing Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg that “this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom; that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth”, it recognizes and reinforces that our freedoms, liberties and rights flow from outside ourselves and, for that matter, outside any government made by man.


If the shift in attitude toward Columbus between 1892 and 1992 is cause for concern, how about the shift from religious tolerance to active antipathy we’ve seen since 1954.  It doesn’t matter how you view God or what name you give Him, it’s pretty clear that our rights come from somewhere outside ourselves.  If they come from ourselves; from some sort of mutually agreed-upon contract or by fiat declaration of government, than they can legitimately be taken away by another contract or a change in leadership.  The Founders would have argued with that, and I think we would, too.


So, here’s the challenge.  Next time you say the pledge of allegiance, say it correctly – even though everyone else in the room will add commas.  If you can’t do that, at least say “one nation under God” as a single phrase and wait for the rest of the room to catch up.  Not only would you be more grammatically correct, you’d be doing a small but significant part as a soldier in the Second American Revolution by reminding yourself, if no one else,  the source of those rights and liberties we’re trying to recover.


Written by Jeffrey S. Smith

23 June 2011 at 1:07 pm

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