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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.

[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?

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.