Friday, November 26, 2010

An artifact from the culture wars, 1969: Red Skelton and the Pledge of Allegiance

I recently had my attention called to this routine by the late comedian Red Skelton, whose TV show in the 1960s was most popular among older and more conservative viewers. He famously closed his show with the phrase, "Good night and God bless." Which as a kid I always thought was a bit odd because most people, then and now, add an object when they say "God bless ...", as in "God bless Grandma", God bless America", etc. The grammatical quirk is actually the reason I remember it, though. So marketing-wise, it was an effective construction.

The clip is from his show in 1969 and records a Pledge of Allegiance routine he did, that has been celebrated by conservative culture warriors ever since. That it still plays that role is indicated by the fact that the YouTube video embedded below opens with the caption, "From ImgnNoLibs and Politically Incorrect Freedom Loving Americans Everywhere". Exactly how the Pledge of Allegiance, an official pledge adopted by the Congress of the United States to which there is no significant political opposition would be "politically incorrect" is not explained. But presumably it still sounds like good culture war material to whoever slapped that label on at the start.

For whatever reason, I was intrigued by what makes this particular clip still popular. And it turned into a bit of a research project, the results of which I'm sharing in this long post.

For context, 1969 was the first year of the Nixon-Agnew Administration. Vice President Spiro Agnew was that Administration's point-man in implementing the Republican Party's "Southern Strategy", which aimed at a partisan realignment of voters from the Democratic Party - to which many conservative voters were still attracted, especially in the South. Agnew rallied conservatives with his invective against various perceived enemies of good Christian white folks. There were antiwar protesters, who he styled as America-hating hippies with poor personal hygiene. There were scary, scary black militants. There were the subversive professors. And, of course, liberal Democrats who were supporting this horde of enemies facing the "Silent Majority", the Nixon-Agnew catchphrase for what Sarah Palin calls Real Americans.

On the face of it, a performance paying vague tribute to the Pledge of Allegiance isn't an obvious candidate for culture war passions, since a phrase like "with liberty and justice for all" is far more likely to trouble conservatives than liberals. And there wasn't any politically significant opposition to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1969 and hasn't been since.

The "culture war" hook is really at the very end. Here is the clip:


I remember a teacher that I had. Now I only, I went - I went through the seventh grade, I went through the seventh grade. I left home when I was ten years old because I was hungry. And I used to- It's true. I'd work in the summer and I'd go to school in the winter. But I had this one teacher, he was the principal of the Harrison School in Vincennes, Indiana. To me this was the greatest teacher, a real sage, of my time, anyhow. He had such wisdom.

And we were all reciting the Pledge of Allegiance one day. And he walked over, this little old teacher, Mr. Laswell was his name. Mr. Laswell, who was this, uh- And he says:

"I've been listening to you boys and girls recite the Pledge of Allegiance all semester. And it seems as though it's becoming monotonous to you. If I may, may I recite it and try to explain to you the meaning of each word.

"I: Me, an individual, a committee of one.

"Pledge: Dedicate all of my worldly goods to give without self-pity.

"Allegiance: My love and my devotion.

"To the Flag: Our standard, Old Glory, a symbol of Freedom; wherever she waves there's respect, because your loyalty has given her a dignity that shouts, 'Freedom is everybody's job'.

"United: That means that we have all come together.

"States: Individual communities that have united into forty-eight great states. Forty-eight individual communities with pride and dignity and purpose. All divided with imaginary boundaries, yet united to a common purpose, and that is love for country.

"And to the Republic: Republic, a state in which sovereign power is invested in representatives chosen by the people to govern. And government is the people; and it's from the people to the leaders, not from the leaders to the people.

"For which it stands: [Mr. Laswell apparently had no sage definitions for this]

"One Nation: One Nation, meaning, so blessed by God.

"Indivisible: Incapable of being divided.

"With Liberty: Which is Freedom, the right of [sic] power to live one's own life, without threats, fear, or some sort of retaliation.

"And Justice: The principle, or qualities, of dealing fairly with others.

"For All: For All, which means, boys and girls, it's as much your country as it is mine.

"And now, boys and girls, let me hear you recite the Pledge of Allegiance:

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic, for which it stands; one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all."

Since I was a small boy, two states have been added to our country, and two words have been added to the Pledge of Allegiance: "under God".

Wouldn't it be a pity if someone said that is a prayer, and that would be eliminated from schools, too?
Today's Christian Right didn't have any easily-comparable counterparts in American politics in 1969. But one issue that our "culture warriors" still complain about today is the Supreme Court rulings of 1962-63 that held that compulsory prayer in public schools was a violation of the First Amendment establishment clause, because it put a governmental institution in the position of requiring minors to participate in a religious ritual. The key cases were Engel v. Vitale (1962) and School District of Abington Township v. Schempp (1963).

I won't try to relitigate Engel and Abington Township in this post. But I will mention that the great country harmonists, Charlie and Ira Louvin, aka, the Louvin Brothers, did what we might call a protest song about this issue, "Don't Let Them Take the Bible Out of Our School Rooms" (1962), written by George Donald McGraw. The chorus was:

Don't let them take the Bible out of our school rooms
Don't let them close the door of your child's heart
Don't let them rob our children of salvation
If you do we're going to lose them from the start

One verse invokes some comparisons:

If it's right to allow liquor in most counties
On the newsstand see the sinful pictures there
If it's right for moving pictures of corruption
Dear God how can we say it's wrong for prayer

For those younger than 80, "moving pictures" presumably refers to "motion pictures", aka, movies.

To complete the culture war context, in the Mississippi high school I was attending in 1969, the school district didn't get around to complying with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling by fully desegregating until the 1970-71 school year. So for many of the voters who were the main targets of the Republicans' Southern Strategy, the fight against what they saw as federal court tyranny was still very prominently focused on school desegregation. But the evil federales trying to rob innocent school children of their salvation by enforcing the First Amendment was a closely related grievance. My high school, by the way, held morning prayers every day, even after full desegregation. I suppose the federal Justice Department was giving desegregating the schools priority over sending little kids to Hail.

Though Skelton's closing line in that routine was vague, that context is what gives it its "culture war" punch. And since the terms of today's "culture war" are remarkably fixated on what our culture warriors remember of the period circa 1969, it's not surprising that the routine has a continued appeal for some.

That closing line is the hook. But when I look at what the clip actually is, I can't help but be surprised that the hook has much hook at all.

From both a Christian religious point of view and from an American citizen's viewpoint, I see separation of church and state as a very good thing for both religion and democratic government. Today's Christian dominionists who believe the latter should be subject to the former would be well advised to take the advice from a song of the Australian singer/songwriter Paul Kelly, "Be careful what you pray for/You just might get it". Do Baptists and Methodists really want the "apostles" of Sarah Palin's "New Apostolic Reformation" brand of Pentecostalism promoting their particular brand of religion through the government and the public schools? Even the main Pentecostal domination in the US, the Assemblies of God, formally considers that brand of Pentecostalism "heresy". Even Palin's Pentecostals might want to consider what it would be like to have their teachings dissected as part of official Congressional debates over public policy. Because merging of church and state inevitably means that the influence flows both ways.

Ole Red's reconstruction of his childhood memories may also lack in historical precision. The Internet Movie Database gives his birthdate as 1913, although the bio there notes that late in life he claimed he had fudged his age, meaning apparently he claimed to be younger than he was. And he says in the clip he only made it through the 7th grade. Here is how Red shows the sage Mr. Laswell saluting the flag back in the good ole days:

But the standard flag salute that typically went along with the Pledge in those days was the "Bellamy salute". This is how it looked:

That photo from the Library of Congress, which gives its date as May 1942 - long after Red Skelton would have finished the 7th grade.

This article from on The Pledge of Allegiance gives a recap of the various alterations to the Pledge and the standard salute, observing of the latter, "In World War II, the salute too much resembled the Nazi salute, so it was changed to keep the right hand over the heart throughout." The Italian Fascists and German Nazis adopted their similar salutes after the tradition of the Bellamy salute had started. But surely the sage Mr. Laswell, who so admired the Pledge, would have used the accepted standard salute, not the one adopted years later.

But if Red had used the Bellamy salute in his 1969 routine, it might have suggested that the Pledge and its traditions weren't quite so sacred as his pious tone in the routine implies - though he obviously acknowledges that the official text was changed (in 1954) to include the phrase "under God". This piece from the US Dept of Veterans Affairs, Celebrating America's Freedoms: The Pledge of Allegiance, gives additional information on the history of the Pledge, which was first officially adopted by Congress in 1942, long after Red Skelton's seventh-grade experience.

Although hardline atheists and some civil libertarians have pressed at times to restrict the use of the Pledge because the inclusion of the phrase "under God", so far they have failed to obtain any such definitive ruling in the courts. But the Supreme Court had decided on the Constitutional law regarding compulsory usage in public schools before the phrase "under God" was even added. In West Virginia Board of Education v Barnette in 1943 during the Second World War, the Supreme Court ruled that public schools could not compel students to recite the Pledge or salute the flag, but the decision did not ban the Pledge from public schools. The majority opinion by Justice Jackson notes that the standard salute was still the stiff-arm Bellamy salute. In the decision, Jackson wrote for the majority:

To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds. ...

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.
Did Red Skelton object to that description of the essential legal content of the First Amendment? Do those today who find his little routine moving? Like whoever "ImgnNoLibs and Politically Incorrect Freedom Loving Americans Everywhere" may be? Don't they support "liberty and justice for all"?

In any case, that was settled law in 1969. But, of course, it would also have stepped on the "culture war" message to say that.

Then there's Mr. Laswell's phrase-by-phrase breakdown, as quoted by his former adoring student. I'd have to say it's banal, at best. It may be nice for children. But why would adults even notice? I know that we're not expected to actually think about these little culture-war devotional pieces, just to cheer for a world with no more Libs. But check this out: "United: That means that we have all come together." It would be impressive for, say, a three-year-old to come up with that on their own; for the sage Mr. Laswell, not so much. But, gosh, to mention a milestone in the achievement of "united" like the Civil War might also cloud the culture war message. (Since Red seems to have adapted Mr. Laswell's salute to 1969, I'm going to guess some of the lines may not be exact quotes written down at that very moment in Red's childhood.)

Or this line, "And Justice: The principle, or qualities, of dealing fairly with others." Since Sage Mr. Laswell offered his boys and girls the mind-bending definition of "I" as "a committee of one" - which I don't even understand - perhaps he could have given them a little more substantial take on this whole "justice" thing. For example: "the rule of law in which every person is treated fairly and equally regard to their wealth or status".

And I'm still chewing on the definition of "One Nation, meaning, so blessed by God." That's what "one nation" means? Wow. I realize that Patriotically Correct etiquette among our culture warriors requires that any mention of God be treated as beyond criticism or question. I mean, unless it's being made by a librul or one of them thar Muslims. But I'm sorry, I can't quite process Mr. Laswell's definition. Does "a nation" mean not especially blessed by God? Or "two nations", doubly blessed by God? It's all a bit too sage for me.

And since Mr. Laswell noticed that his pupils seemed to be getting bored by the Pledge, it made me wonder how often they were required to say it. Because, you know, anything repeated often enough can become rote recitation. Regardless, I wonder if all the other kiddies at Harrison School were as inspired by Mr. Laswell's part-banal, part-incomprehensible explanation as Little Red apparently was.

Which brings me to another interesting point about this routine. It's a story about a teacher explaining the thing to little children. It's all homey and heart-warming and stuff. But how do you get from that to taking it as a culture war piece that helps the Patriotically Correct imagine no liberals?

One last bit of Pledge trivia. This article by Tom Gibb, How the Pledge got God Pitsburgh Post-Gazette 06/28/2002, tells the story of how "under God" made its way into the Pledge, to which the same writer adds in Minister reprises 'under God' sermon Pitsburgh Post-Gazette 08/19/2002. The text of the 1954 sermon by George Docherty on the subject, which became iconic, is available here from the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.

But I have to wonder what our cultural warriors today would make of this part of Doucherty's sermon:

Some might assert this to be a violation of the first amendment to the Constitution. It is quite the opposite. The first amendment is concerned with the question of religion: "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion."

Now, "establishment of religion" is a technical term. It means Congress will permit no state church in this land such as exists in England. In England the bishops are appointed by her Majesty. The church, by law, is supported by tiends or rent. The church, therefore, can call upon the support of the Law of the Land to carry out its own ecclesiastical laws. What the Declaration [he clearly means the First Amendment here] says, in effect, is that no state church shall exist in this land. This is separation of Church and State ... [my emphasis]
Christian dominionists make a particular point of denying that the First Amendment means any such thing as "separation of church and state". A comment in a debate by unsuccessful Delaware Senate candidate Christine "I'm not a witch" O'Donnell drew some attention to this issue back in October; see Jon Butler, Does the First Amendment Separate Church and State? History News Network 10/25/2010 and Candace Chellew-Hodge, O’Donnell Blows Church-State Separation Dog Whistle Religion Dispatches 10/19/2010.

Our cultural warriors today may find this part of the sermon even more unsettling:

Of course, as Christians, we might include the words 'under Jesus Christ' or 'under the King of Kings.' But one of the glories of this land is that it has opened its gates to all men of every religious faith. ...

There is no religious examination on entering the U.S.A. - no persecution because a man's faith differs even from the Christian religion. It must be "UNDER GOD" to include the great Jewish Community, and the people of the Moslem faith, and the myriad of denominations of Christians in the land.

What then of the honest atheist?

Philosophically speaking, an atheistic American is a contradiction in terms. Now don't misunderstand me. This age has thrown up a new type of man - we call him a "secular"; he does not believe in God; not because he is a wicked man, but because he is dialectically honest. He would rather walk with the unbelievers than sit hypocritically with people of the faith. These men, and many have I known, are fine in character; and in their obligations as citizens and good neighbors, quite excellent. [my emphasis]
Say what?!? He says Muslims believe in God, too? Why, the guy must have been a sympathizer of The Terrorists, or something! And saying an atheist can be "fine in character"? He does go on to make it pretty clear that he did intend to stigmatize atheists as "spiritual parasites", saying the atheist "falls short of the American ideal of life". But he also wasn't embracing the Muslim-hating bile we've been hearing from our cultural warriors the last few months.

In 2002, as Tom Gibb reports in the first of his two articles linked above, just months after the 9/11 attacks, Docherty had this to say about the "under God" phrase:

"This is a nation built on the principle that there is a God, but it doesn't define it," Docherty said. "It could be the Christian God. It could be the Judeo God. It could be the Buddhan god, it could the Mohammedan God. But it's built on a vertical relationship with God." [my emphasis]
And then there's this from the same report:

Docherty and his wife, Sue, who teaches fourth grade across the road at Juniata Valley Elementary School, live in a comfortable home, looking out on mountains and cornfields, a universe from where George Docherty preached to presidents and lawmakers.

The messages weren't benign.

He was a civil rights advocate and marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala. He opposed the war in Vietnam.
Oh.Under.God. The "UNDER GOD" preacher was a, a librul?!? He supported the Communists Negroes and civil rights activists in the South! He opposed the sacred crusade in Vietnam! No wonder Red recited the Pledge without the "under God" phrase in it.

That Doucherty fellow may have succeeded in slipping secret Islamunism into the Pledge of Allegiance itself! Oh, noes! In fact, if you look closely at that sermon again, he even says "the Communists claim, there is Justice in Russia. They have their law courts. They have their elections with universal suffrage." What, it, what - the guy was obviously a screaming Marxist! We'd better get Glenn Beck and his Black Robed Regiment on this at once! And if the Islamunofascists have inserted the Muslimist God into the official Pledge of Allegiance ... that means Sharia is the law of the land now!!! Oh, the horror, the horror ...

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