If one deed best illustrates how difficult it is to keep American government from promoting religion, despite clear constitutional injunctions, it’s the U.S. Congress’s insidious revision of the Pledge of Allegiance 65 years ago in July.
At the fervent urging of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Congress, on June 14, 1954, voted — unanimously, apparently — to add the phrase “under God” to the pledge.
It was the day current president Donald Trump turned 8.
The purpose of the revision was to more clearly differentiate the godless, Communist Soviet Union from a supposedly Christian America at a tense time in the Cold War, although the nation was originally and purposely created as a secular republic.
Eisenhower, who at the time had recently been baptized as a Presbyterian, was moved by a sermon by the Rev. George Docherty, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., that Eisenhower attended and Abraham Lincoln long before. As he had previously, Rev. Docherty opined from the pulpit that February Sunday in 1954 that the phrase “under God” should be in the pledge.
“To omit the words ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance is to omit the definitive factor in the American way of life,” Docherty said in his sermon.
Ironically, Rev. Docherty, an immigrant Scotsman, had never heard the pledge until his son recited it one day.
“I came from Scotland, where we said, ‘God save our gracious queen,’ ‘God save our gracious king,” he told a Associated Press reporter in 2004. “Here was the pledge of allegiance, and God wasn’t in it at all. … An atheistic American is a contradiction in terms. If you deny the Christian ethic, you fall short of the American ideal of life.”
The day after this sermon, Rep. Charles Oakman (R-Michigan) introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to add the phrase to the pledge.
“From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty,” Eisenhower said when the bill passed both houses of Congress and became law. “… In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.”
This was Eisenhower’s opinion, not the founding ethos of the American republic, whose Founding Fathers emphatically sought to separate religion in all its forms and government, to avoid the problems such entanglement caused over centuries in the fractious Europe American settlers originally fled.
The addition of “under God” was the first really substantive change to the pledge, whose forerunner was published by Boston-area minister Francis Bellamy in 1892 in The Youth’s Companion to celebrate the 400th anniversary of America’s “discovery.” It was written for schoolchildren to recite.
Originally, the text was:
“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic, for which it stands — one nation, indivisible — with liberty and justice for all.”
In 1923, the phrase “my Flag” was replaced by “the flag of the United States of America,” and in 1942 the revised pledge was officially recognized by the U.S. government.
Preceding official recognition of the pledge, the U.S. Supreme Court, ruled in Minersville School District v. Gobitis in 1940 that public-school students could be compelled to swear to the Pledge, including Jehovah’s Witnesses who considered the pledge and its original attendant salute to be idolatrous. But in 1943 in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the court reversed itself, ruling 6-3, with the majority opinion stating:
“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. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”
It was considered a “voluntary” pledge, but every school child in America started the day with the pledge, and not taking part marked non-pledgers.
Then, in 1998, atheist Michael Newdow began a series of lawsuits, appeals and new suits that eventually worked their way to the Supreme Court. He argued, literally (he personally presented his case before the highest court), that it was unconstitutional and unfair that his daughter had to be exposed to a pledge with religious content at school.
Generally, courts would not formally rule on his argument because they decided he did not have “standing” to sue, due to him not being personally harmed by the pledge, and that only his ex-wife (who had legal custody of his daughter, although they shared physical custody) would have proper standing. Finally, in May 2014, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that the pledge is patriotic, not religious, and that the phrase “under God” thus does not discriminate against atheists.
In Newdow v. United States in 2014, the court concluded:
“Joining its sister circuits, the court held that [insertions of the phrase ‘under God’ in the pledge] do not violate the Establishment Clause, the Free Exercise Clause, or RFRA because the statues at issue have a secular purpose and neither advance nor inhibit religion, and appellants have failed to identify a substantial burden upon their religious practices or belief. The court considered appellants’ remaining arguments and found them to be without merit.”
So the conclusion is that the word “God,” if used long enough by society, becomes nonreligious in meaning.
Consider that the initial reason “under God” was even considered for the pledge was that proponents believed the phrase was in Lincoln’s hallowed “Gettysburg Address.” But, whereas eyewitness reporters’ notes all showed the president said the phrase, it appears nowhere in his hand-written text.
Also keep in mind that as Lincoln and others routinely used the phrase in 1863, it meant “God willing.”
That changes the whole common sense of the pledge. This is why “tradition” isn’t foolproof.
An interesting postscript to this historical story involves Rev. Docherty, whose 1954 sermon inspired President Eisenhower to push Congress to insert “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance in the first place. But when the revised pledge was celebrated at the U.S. Capitol on Flag Day in 1954, the good reverend wasn’t there.
“Everybody who was anybody was present except me,” he told The Washington Post. “They forgot to invite me.”