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How reciting the Pledge of Allegiance became a sacred, patriotic ritual

Thomas S. Bremer, Rhodes College, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

The Continental Congress, the legislative body for the newly declared United States, adopted an official flag on June 14, 1777. The delegates resolved that “the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white: that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

In the early years of the nation, though, this flag rarely appeared except in government and military displays.

That changed with the Civil War. As historian and author Marc Leepson writes in his book about the U.S. flag, Northerners began displaying it in homes and businesses to show support for the Union. After the war, the flag became a symbol of the reunified nation.

In 1885, schoolteacher Bernard Cigrand commemorated for the first time the anniversary of the adoption of the U.S. flag with his students at the Stony Hill School in Wisconsin. He subsequently launched a campaign to establish June 14 as Flag Day. In 1949, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution designating June 14 of each year as Flag Day.

One of the more popular patriotic rituals honoring the U.S. flag is the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. For generations, schoolchildren have recited the pledge daily. It opens legislative sessions of the United States Senate and countless other government, public and private gatherings.

As a historian of religions in America, I view this ubiquitous ritual through the lens of American civil religion – the patriotic beliefs, ceremonies and symbols that are sacred to Americans.

 

The concept of civil religion originated in European Enlightenment philosophy. Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in his 1762 treatise “Social Contract” that “a State has never been founded without religion serving as its base.”

American sociologist Robert Bellah used Rousseau’s concept of civil religion in his 1967 analysis of U.S. civic culture. Bellah claimed that an “American civil religion” persists alongside other religious traditions. American Christians, Jews and followers of other conventional religious traditions are also patriotic devotees of the national faith.

Bellah’s argument has inspired considerable debate. Numerous scholars have found the idea of civil religion useful. Bellah’s original essay noted references to God in presidential addresses and the sacred character of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Other scholars have used civil religion to explain judicial interpretations of the U.S. Constitution’s religion clauses and in characterizing nationally significant places such as the Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson monuments in Washington, D.C., as sacred spaces.

Critics dispute Bellah’s assumptions. Historian of religion John F. Wilson, for instance, claimed that Bellah’s view of civil religion distorts the complex political, cultural and civic cultures of the United States. Wilson argues that Bellah’s concept reduces complex national cultures, including the religious elements, to a one-dimensional “religion” of the nation.

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