Religious Life

The Pledge in St. Louis Park – A Weekly Letter by Rabbi Davis – July 5, 2019

Shalom Chaverim,

I have spent the last two weeks travelling in Europe. I went to celebrate my niece’s bat mitzvah and added some vacation on to the family time. Upon returning, I was surprised to find our St Louis Park community embroiled in a self-made controversy. As I am sure you know, the City Council decided to drop the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at council meetings. The council believed that doing so would make meetings more inclusive of non-citizens. While reciting the Pledge is not standard practice of every city council in Minnesota, the change is seen by some as blatantly un-American.

I have to confess that I have never been to a city council meeting. So, I have not recited the Pledge at City Hall. Nor have I spoken with non-citizens to understand if they feel excluded during its recitation. Still, I feel compelled to address the issue.  

As I understand it, the Pledge of Allegiance was originally composed by Union Army veteran, Captain George Thatcher Balch in 1892. Balch was a teacher who sought to instill patriotism in his pupils, especially new immigrants. Five years later, Francis Bellamy, a Baptist Minister and Christian socialist rewrote Balch’s pledge. It has undergone a number of minor revisions since then. Our current pledge is essentially Bellamy’s composition.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Bellamy like Balch, felt that patriotism was waning. He sensed that “the time was ripe for reawakening simple Americanism.” Working with the National Education Association, he organized an event to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus to America featuring the recitation of The Pledge of Allegiance. In this campaign to instill American nationalism in students, Bellamy partnered with James Upham who tied the initiative to selling flags (at cost) to schools. 25,000 schools acquired flags that first school year (1892-93).

As a socialist and inspired by the slogan of the French Revolution, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (liberty, equality, fraternity), Bellamy initially considered using the words “equality” and “fraternity” in the pledge. He decided against it knowing that the state superintendents of education on his committee were against equality for women and African Americans. Bellamy wrote, “fraternity was too remote of realization, and …equality was a dubious word.” Instead, he concluded that “Liberty and justice were surely basic, were undebatable, and were all that any one Nation could handle. If they were exercised for all. They involved the spirit of equality and fraternity.”

In light of this history and considering our current political climate, some may be put off by the emphasis on nationalism. Others may be inspired by the desire to instill patriotism. In either case, given our deeply polarized and politically charged times, any change in the city council’s practice was bound to cause an uproar.

Here is what I think. I am deeply committed to ritual- Jewish ritual of course but also the rituals of American civic life. I find them incredibly powerful and important. I know there are many ways to express and instill patriotism. Still, I find that rituals give us a common language, create bonds of community and instill shared values. For that reason, I find it unfortunate that so many of our public displays of civil religion are relegated to sporting events. Why does every baseball game begin with the national anthem, but theater shows do not? Is going to a football game more patriotic than going to a play? Surely not!

It is for this very reason that I have previously shared with you my Thanksgiving “Hagaddah.” I have decried the way American holidays- like Memorial Day- have largely become just an excuse for vacations and shopping and devoid of their true spirit and significance. Beyond the 4th of July, I would love to see more rituals introduced throughout the year to a variety of public spaces and cultural venues.

Inclusion is an important value. Still, eliminating the Pledge is not the way to achieve greater inclusion. It should be reinstated.

The Pledge of Allegiance calls upon us to work towards “justice for all.” While perhaps not originally meant to refer to non-citizens, if inclusion of the pledge inspires the City Council and all of us to work towards that vision, it will have been worth including and this controversy will have served a noble purpose.

Happy Belated 4th of July!


Rabbi Alexander Davis