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Reflections on a Pledge: Liberty and Justice for All
The writer reflects on what it means to take seriously both 'liberty' and 'justice' in the Pledge of Allegiance penned by Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy.
By Gordon Merseth
We end our Pledge of Allegiance with the phrase “ ……… with liberty and justice for all.” We say it by memory and maybe skip quickly through the last line so we can get on our way. This 1892 oath, penned by Francis Bellamy and containing only 23 words in the original version, was intended to remind all citizens that we are obligated to align our allegiance with that of the nation. But what does that really mean?
Are “Liberty” and “Justice” just two words the author of the document chose for the ending sentence because they sounded good together? Or did he choose them because they had the correct size and rhythm for the sentence? For whatever reason Bellamy chose them, they speak volumes about what we wish for each and every citizen of our country.
But do they fit? Do they compliment each other in that stated pursuit of happiness? Can you have both liberty and justice simultaneously? Is the difference located just in the eye of the beholder? Is my liberty unjust for you? Does your justice take away my liberty?
Bellamy’s pledge, written at the assignment of his editors at Youth Companion Magazine was intended to promote the socialism movement in which he was so deeply invested. Bellamy also intended to educate school children in the ways of a militaristic society where taking a daily pledge complete with a military hand salute was required.
Even with its grey back story, if any of today’s candidates campaigned on Bellamy’s Christian Socialism views, they would find themselves quickly out of the race.
In this season of pre-election posturing, swinging just far enough to the left or right to pick up followers who will become voters but trying not to lose touch with the all important center, we frequently hear candidates talk about ‘liberty’ and ‘justice’ proclaiming them as unshakable building blocks on which we build our society and define our country. In fact, they are opposite points on a weathervane.
For example, Ron Paul would have us believe that liberty, ie. freedom for the individual, is without question the real measure of a good society.
Rick Santorum on the other hand would have us employ an army of guns, barbed wire and land mines to create an enforceable barrier to illegal immigrants, make english the national language and deny any form of ‘amnesty’ for people already here. In doing so, he would have us believe that it is only ‘just’ that those of us who are second, third and fourth generation descendents of immigrants are entitled to our rights because we are grandfathered in by our ancestors, legal or not.
It seems this arena of debate is central to the ongoing argument we are having in this country now, in a variety of areas. In our effort to protect ourselves from those who would do us harm, whether by allowing unregulated, individual gun ownership or using the phone company’s records without judicial approval, we find ourselves having to choose between individual and group liberties. Our perceived need to invoke “justice” on those who rely on bullets and cyberspying to achieve their ends means stripping the liberty to use those things in the pursuit of justice. Contrarily, can justice be achieved without loss of liberties?
Liberty means freedom; freedom to do, say, gather, read, worship, write and a multitude of other things that free people do; at least within the laws that we set out for conduct in a civil society.
Justice on the other hand seems to be much more difficult. In a collective sense we tend to define justice as a term combining fairness, payback, or a right outcome resulting from a given act.
But neither liberty nor justice are so easily defined. The complexities of trying to define the two are often so tangled in personal history and short-sighted views that we often try to simplify it by relying on laws or codes, both secular and religious. An ‘eye for an eye, a stripe for a stripe’ becomes the mantra when we cannot seem to find our way to a just conclusion which satisfies the most people.
Are liberty and justice the yin and yang of our ability to coexist with one another? Are they simply complementary opposites that can only be defined in the existence of the other? Are we locked into this ‘either/or’ condition of having to choose between liberty and justice or can we find our way to ‘both/and’?
Our challenge in listening to the positions of candidates and, come November, voting, is finding that path where liberty and justice can coexist. The challenge for this and every administration and congress will be finding that balance where individual and collective liberty does not stand in the way of a just response to vile acts and instead becomes a defining characteristic of being American. Even if it is not easy, each of us is responsible, if we say the pledge, to promote both liberty and justice for all.
Gordon Merseth is a Portland resident, husband, father and civil engineer and interested in the forces that connect our lives; both the obvious and obscure. Among several pastimes he finds writing a gentle way to think things through, especially when confused.
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