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The Bellamy Salute

american-school-children-bellamy-saluteMany Americans may be unaware that the author of the Pledge of Allegiance, Francis Bellamy, also prescribed a salute for civilians to use while reciting the pledge. Standing at attention, the civilian was to extend the right arm stiffly, fingers forward, palm to the ground. This salute is still called the “Bellamy salute,” and it was used for decades before Congress specified the hand-over-heart gesture that civilians now use when reciting the pledge.

Why did Congress make the change? Simply because the Fascists and then the National Socialists adopted a version of the Roman salute that was virtually indistinguishable from the Bellamy salute. During the early years of World War II, this similarity created significant confusion. For example, enemies of Charles Lindberg would photograph him reciting the Pledge of Allegiance (using the Bellamy salute), but then crop out the flag. These pictures were then linked to accusations that Lindberg was a Nazi sympathizer.

The Roman salute became as characteristic of Fascism and National Socialism as swastikas, jackboots and heel-clacking. After National Socialism was overthrown, Germany made its symbols illegal. There, a person could be put in jail for rendering a Bellamy salute even today.

In the United States, the Bellamy salute is protected speech—no one would be prosecuted for using it. Nevertheless, few remember that the whole nation once used it as a civilian salute. Someone who now offered it while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance today would certainly receive strange looks, if nothing else.

The Bellamy salute was once an aspect of American culture. An identical gesture is arguably still an aspect of American culture, but in an entirely different way. This difference requires Americans to consider whether and how they ought to render a Bellamy salute.

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Cooperation and Culture: Conclusion

[Nota Bene on Godwin’s Law: in 1990, then-student Mike Godwin articulated a principle that has become an Internet axiom. The principle is that as Internet discussion continues, the probability of a comparison to Hitler or Nazism asymptotically approaches certainty. This observation seems impressive until one realizes that Godwin’s law is a truism. If any discussion continues long enough, the probability that any given topic or comparison will be introduced increases, eventually approaching certainty. Because of the truistic nature of Godwin’s Law, it offers no real insight. While accurate, it is merely trivial. The appeal to Godwin’s Law as a device to control or preempt conversation is without exception the mark of a weak mind. Godwin’s Law is, in effect, an intellectual virus that replicates itself in mental pudding.]

For Discussion:

  1. Is the Bellamy salute intrinsically immoral?
  2. Does the Bellamy salute communicate any intrinsic meaning?
  3. Would the use of the Bellamy salute say something to most Westerners today? How would you know?
  4. Did Congress make the right choice when it changed the salute?
  5. How does meaning get attached to symbols and gestures?
  6. How would you evaluate a worship leader who chose to use the Bellamy salute as an aspect of congregational worship?
  7. Should Christians attempt to redeem or transform the Bellamy salute, and if so, how?
Kevin T. Bauder

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.

24 Responses to The Bellamy Salute

  1. Great example. I used this in Sound Worship, and regularly when I preach in churches, as an illustration of what I call "conventional association" as contrasted with "natural association."

  2. Of course, natural and conventional association are not the only ways in which meaning is formed. For example, Weaver objects to the notion that languages are merely conventions. He speaks of them as covenants of meaning, and affirms that language is by its nature sermonic.

  3. By "natural" associations, I mean meaning that is created by means of experiences common to all humanity. In other words, I would argue that meaning is created through associations; while some of those associations (usually the most surface) are merely conventional, others (the deepest layers) are natural.

    So meanings behind facial expressions, vocal intonation, and physical movements, for example, are often naturally, occurring in all common human experience. When music mimics these kinds of natural meanings, it can convey that meaning and an almost universal level.

    On the other hand, when music's meaning is rooted in conventional association, that meaning is conveyed only to those who are aware of the association.

    This is where something like the Bellamy salute comes in. I would suggest (in answer to your first question) that there is nothing naturally (or intrinsically) immoral about the gesture. At a nature level it merely conveys a sort of honor or allegiance (I suppose we could debate what is conveyed naturally).

    But it is the conventional association that becomes problematic. And the beauty of your example is that it reveals (in answer to some of your other questions) that although conventional associations are not intrinsic and may change over time, their meaning is very real and must be considered.

  4. I do need to go back and read Language is Sermonic (now that I have time to read for pleasure again!). The verbal language issue is one that I've not quite grasped yet is terms of how much is mere convention and how much is intrinsic.

  5. Just start with Weaver's dissertation, _Southern Tradition at Bay_. You all will get everything you need right there.

  6. "Godwin’s Law is, in effect, an intellectual virus that replicates itself in mental pudding."

    I think you meant to say "This essay."

    This is actually retarded. I'm assuming you will soon be writing up 500 words about the redeeming qualities of the word "retarded" as a pejorative, so that shouldn't offend you at all.

  7. LuxFredom,

    Welcome. Thanks for stopping by. I encourage you to visit often and express your opinions about what we write here; we even welcome disagreement.

    I simply ask that you conduct yourself as a gracious Christian as you do so. Please let your speech be seasoned with salt.

    Thanks! I hope you stop by again.

  8. ^Well that was definitely the most "gracious" version of "shut up" that I've seen today!

  9. Ha, yeah. I definitely trolled ya good there. But honestly folks, this article is odd, but the discussion following? Well it's just plain ridiculous: the para-masturbatory ramblings of the pseudo-intellectual. Your distinction between "natural and conventional associations" is actually terribly relativistic, which I think we're supposed to hate as "fundamentalists," no? What you designate as natural and conventional are completely on your own terms. You call music a natural association because of the way the body reacts to it. I assume you're talking about sex here? Well could I not take it one step further and say that sexual expression is conventional? No doubt the act of sex is natural, but the amorous gyrations leading to the consummation has no doubt changed through the generations. Or perhaps I'm misrepresenting your position? Help me out here.

  10. Lux,

    I respectfully submit that you've missed the point of distinguishing between natural and conventional association. I'd encourage you to read Sound Worship to see what I mean.

    Since that's actually a bit beyond the point of this post, why don't you engage the questions Kevin listed at the end of his post. Perhaps some of your answers will help us understand why you think this discussion is old and ridiculous.

  11. Scott, you brought music into the discussion, as you are wont to do. I am merely responding to that.

  12. Speaking of the questions, my initial response to #2 is that it does indeed convey intrinsic meaning– the open (weaponless) hand signifying harmlessness, the stiffened posture signifying formality, the angle of the outstretched arm signifying deference. All appropriate to a gesture of salute.

    I'll have to admit I have almost no experience dealing with people outside my own culture, so I don't know whether some of that is more conventional than intrinsic, but they seem common enough to various friendly/military gestures I've seen to at least tentatively put forward as intrinsic.

  13. The salute itself is trivial to the conversation. The obvious answer to the last question is NO! Goodness. There's no reason at all to be using it. Just as there no reason to wave a confederate flag outside your house or to dress in black-face. These expressions are at best terribly insensitive and worst blatantly racist–neither are becoming of the saints.

    I assume (hope) the purpose of the essay is to get readers to think about other associations. Which is another reason why I brought up music.

  14. Good, Lux. So do you think there could be any associations that exist with certain styles of music or performance practice that would render then unusable for a Christian, similar to the salute?

  15. Hahaha. Scott, you are not Socrates–or Jesus for that matter. I'm not trying to trick you. I'm genuinely trying to engage with you (Lord knows why). By the way, this is Justin Rettger. We know one another. Sorry for hiding behind the pseudonym here.

    Are you talking about worship here or just a Christian listening to music at all? There are a lot musical genres that fit well for worship for a lot of people. (As an aside, for the most part I really don't care for contemporary music in worship. Call it a carry-over from my Bethany days?) I think rap is a great example. There is A LOT of great rap music out there–I'm talking about the secular stuff, I've never listened to Christian rap. The fact that there are negative associations with the form I would honestly say that's a product of our racist society. Obviously there is a lot of sex, sexism, homophobia, and just outright hatred in the music, but I would argue that's not what the genre is about. And you can see that if you look at what rap came from. A lot of the older stuff (and even the current stuff) is about redemption from a harsh, immoral urban environment. Those are themes that the Christian artist can work with, no?

  16. I get the point. I agree with the point. I also think it's worth noting that a form that's quite similar to the one that's inappropriate may be just different enough so that no one gets the meaning confused. This and this, for example. Obviously, it will be a matter of judgment informed by an understanding of context, audience, and perhaps many other factors, as to whether the form is sufficiently different to fittingly communicate the intended meaning.

  17. "The Old South may indeed be a hall hung with splendid tapestries in which no one would care to live; but from them we can learn something of how to live."

  18. You might enjoy the new book "Pledge of Allegiance + Swastika Secrets" by the author Ian Tinny, regarding the work of the historian Dr. Rex Curry. The book reveals that the pledge was the origin of the Nazi salute and Nazi behavior. You ask: Is the Bellamy salute intrinsically immoral? The gesture was not written originally to be palm down and stiff, but that is how it was performed in practice because it began with a military salute that was then extended outward to point at the flag. Bellamy was promoting his dogma of "military socialism" and a government takeover of schools and education for that purpose. Remember that it is not simply a gesture, it is robotic chanting en mass on command daily in government schools (socialist schools). People were beaten, persecuted and lynched for failing to comply. persecution continues to occur.

    For the above reasons and many more, no one should chant the pledge, and the pledge should be removed from the flag, the flags from the schools, and the schools from government.

  19. What does this have to do with the gospel? There are many things that are not evil in themselves, but they are frowned upon in society. We are not the makers of culture; we adapt to the culture, so that we may preach Christ. If a nation used the salute, let the Christian salute, but to bring this in and try to establish it, for what? Because it is Roman in origin? Who cares.

  20. Lux, where do we find the Biblical mandate, precedent or example of Christians "redeeming" something produced by a secular culture (i.e. "the world"), especially for use in worshipping a holy God?

    Can you provide any references that back up this concept? I ask because I keep hearing it from those that defend things like "relevance" and CCM and I've yet to be able to find Biblical support for it.

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