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The Grand Old Pledge
And How It Has Changed

by William E. Phipps


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 3.


The Supreme Court is now reviewing the Ninth Circuit Court's decision to strike the phrase "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. If that phrase is removed, the Pledge would return to the form in which I memorized it in public school. During World War II, no one complained about any deficiency in the twenty-nine words we repeated during our daily flag raisings. Our generation swelled with patriotic pride, and we could hardly wait to enlist in our armed services to help topple the totalitarian regimes intent on conquering the world.

The original Pledge of Allegiance was introduced after more than a century of our nation's history. The author, the Reverend Francis Bellamy, grew up during the Civil War. He was acutely aware of the struggle that would decide whether "E Pluribus Unum" was true, or if our states were in fact divisible. Accordingly, he composed "one nation indivisible," with no comma separating nation from indivisible. Liberty and justice, words with religious as well as democratic connotations, were selected from the preamble of the U. S. Constitution. He recognized that "for some" ought to be the concluding phrase if a description of his contemporary America was intended, but he thought that the Pledge should affirm the unfulfilled ideal of "liberty and justice for all" toward which America was moving.

Bellamy, like Emma Lazarus (author of "The New Colossus," the poem on the plaque at the foot of the Statue of Liberty), tried to raise awareness of poor immigrants who were "yearning to breathe free." He authored the Pledge during the Gilded Age, when business tycoons stressed economic liberty to the exclusion of justice for all. Finding that his affluent Boston Baptist congregation did not share his passion for addressing social disparities, Bellamy left the pastorate to become an editor of The Youth's Companion, which aimed at instilling public virtue. In 1892, he published in that popular magazine a pledge that he hoped public school students would recite on Columbus Day, which Congress had just recognized. With minor modifications in the early twentieth century, the Pledge came to be widely used, though two generations passed before it received official governmental endorsement.

In 1953, the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, lobbied to amend the Pledge in their effort to galvanize Americans against the country's enemies. The group urged Congress to add "under God" in order to make official what they believed to be essential for distinguishing genuine Americans from "godless communists." The next year, the Reverend George Docherty became a catalyst for their cause by preaching "one nation under God" with President Eisenhower in attendance. The Scottish minister had come to Washington's historic New York Avenue Presbyterian Church several years earlier from the homogeneous British culture where he assumed that, "It was everybody's belief that God was part of society."1 Without the phrase 'under God,'" Docherty said, "the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag might have been recited with similar sincerity by Muscovite children." (This assumes that a Soviet dictator would have permitted his subjects to express a longing for democratic liberty and justice. Docherty also unintentionally gave affront to atheistic service personnel who have fought and died for America in every war when he declared that "an atheistic American is a contradiction in terms.")

After hearing the sermon, Eisenhower became an advocate for inserting into government documents and other texts words that belonged to religious creeds. The sermon was printed in the Congressional Record, and argument was given in Congress that the "under God" addition "would serve to deny the atheistic and materialistic concepts of communism."2 In 1954 our government accepted words that transformed the Pledge into a theocratic statement.

That was in the McCarthy era, a low point in governmental recognition of citizen rights. Some vocal advocates of equality were accused of being anti-American Marxists. Racists who promoted the theological addition to the Pledge were able to use it to deflect attention from the subversive, socialist-sounding expression "liberty and justice for all."

The placement of the two-word insertion also altered the Pledge's original sentiments by making indivisible appear to be an attribute of the deity. If an addition were needed to distinguish our democratic government from our Cold War enemies, "under the people" placed after "indivisible" would have been in accord with the opening declaration of the Constitution, "We the people." But "under God" is clearly unconstitutional; our Constitution doesn't mention God, much less refer to Americans being under divine rule.

What had originally been intended to promote inclusive patriotism now incorporated a divisive theological affirmation. Thomas Jefferson explained that the article of religious freedom in our statutes was "meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection" not only monotheists but "the Hindoo [sic] and Infidel." How can a nation pursue "justice for all" but exclude many millions of citizens who are nontheists or devoted to other or multiple gods? Moreover, some Christians in pietistic traditions are convinced that their ultimate loyalty to Christ is compromised by being expected to affirm a solemn and sacred personal oath that's sponsored by the state. And some religious people who associate the divine name with personal prayer are offended by those who justify the "under God" addition by arguing that it is merely a ceremonial recognition of religious heritage.

The words inserted into the grand old Pledge do violence to the convictions of many of our nation's early settlers. Immigrants from Europe were aware that appeal to God had caused divisions, not unity, in their countries of origin, and many were relieved to find here a nation that disallowed the establishment of a national religion. England, with its government-sanctioned Anglican Church, had conflicts with the Presbyterians of Scotland and the Catholics of Ireland. And on the European continent, the Christian majority had for centuries trampled on the rights of Jews and Muslims. Most of the "Founding Fathers" recognized that, when a state becomes an instrument for worshiping God as defined by the majority of its citizens, patriotism becomes narrowed and prejudice is sanctioned toward those with different religious beliefs.

Almost half a century passed after the "under God" addition was made before a federal court dealt with Congress's error of inserting a blatant endorsement of monotheism into the Pledge. In 2002, a three-judge panel of the appellate court for nine western states recognized in the Newdow v. Congress case that the Constitution does not permit religious coercion and decided that teachers in public classrooms could not inflict a religious statement upon impressionable youth. Judge Alfred Goodwin, a Nixon appointee and a Presbyterian elder, authored the majority opinion, writing:

In the context of the Pledge, the statement that the United States is a nation "under God" is an endorsement of religion. It is a profession of religious belief, namely, a belief in monotheism. . . . A profession that we are a nation "under God" is identical, for Establishment Clause purposes, to a profession that we are a nation "under Jesus," a nation "under Vishnu," a nation "under Zeus," or a nation "under no god" because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion. . . . The Pledge, as currently codified, is an impermissible government endorsement of religion because it sends a message to unbelievers "that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community."

Goodwin concluded his decision by quoting what Justice Robert Jackson wrote in 1943: "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."

Use of the Pledge with the 1954 modification should be banned in public schools because its intent is to advance one type of religion. This year, the majority of the full Appellate Court of twenty-four judges of the Ninth Circuit Court upheld the earlier Newdow v. Congress decision. Their ruling recognizes that helping or hindering religion violates the First Amendment, which bars the establishment of religion generally or particularly in one variety.

In affirming monotheism, which is no business of a secular government, Americans might miss the thrust of the Pledge's original moral content. My Confederate and slaveholding grandfathers willingly swore "so help me God" in court but they were not devoted to national indivisibility, liberty, justice, and equality. Or, consider the chasm between belief and practice by the Al Qaeda hijackers: they affirmed universal monotheism with their last breath on 9/11, but were contemptuous of the worth and dignity of all humans.

Our Constitution was intended to protect us against those of any religion who presume that religious belief is prerequisite to patriotism. All American atheists and polytheists that I, a Christian minister, have known are devoted to our democratic government and deserve having a Pledge to the Flag that also represents them. The original version of the Pledge, which was in use longer than the one most Americans now living have learned, passes the constitutional muster and should be revived.

Notes

1. George Docherty, One Way of Living (New York: Harper, 1958), pp. 158-73.

2. H.R. 1693 83rd Congress, 2nd Session, 1954.


William E. Phipps is professor emeritus of Religion and Philosophy at Davis and Elkins College and author of Mark Twain's Religion (Mercer University Press, 2003).

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