One nation, under God...
March 21, 2009 at 12:15 a.m. by Luke Graybill
I am probably safe in saying that nearly every single American reading this post will have had the Pledge of Allegiance burned into their rote memory early enough in their lives that they may not remember ever not knowing it.
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.
Given the general topics that I deal with on my blog, it should come as no surprise that I am quite interested in the particular phrase "under God" in the Pledge. I have often heard people mistakenly point to the Pledge as evidence that America is a Christian nation, a sentiment which is usually intended as a bludgeon to stamp out the heathens in our midst, or at the very least to cast judgment down upon them.
Equally as often, I have also heard that this phrase was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, "sometime in the 1950's." Never one to simply accept what others tell me, I did some research to find the facts on this issue.
The original Pledge of Allegiance, written by Francis Bellamy in August 1892, read like this:
I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
He wrote the Pledge while serving as chairman in a committee affiliated with the National Education Association, intending it to be recited by children in public schools during the celebration of Columbus Day that year. Interestingly, he wanted to use the words "equality" and "fraternity" somewhere in the Pledge as well, but decided not to because he was worried that it would not be accepted by the many bigots that surrounded him.
A most interesting insight into Mr. Bellamy's literary and creative inspiration is revealed in his own recounting of the meaning behind the Pledge of Allegiance:
It began as an intensive communing with salient points of our national history, from the Declaration of Independence onwards; with the makings of the Constitution...with the meaning of the Civil War; with the aspiration of the people...
The true reason for allegiance to the Flag is the 'republic for which it stands.' ...And what does that vast thing, the Republic mean? It is the concise political word for the Nation - the One Nation which the Civil War was fought to prove. To make that One Nation idea clear, we must specify that it is indivisible, as Webster and Lincoln used to repeat in their great speeches. And its future?
Just here arose the temptation of the historic slogan of the French Revolution which meant so much to Jefferson and his friends, 'Liberty, equality, fraternity.' No, that would be too fanciful, too many thousands of years off in realization. But we as a nation do stand square on the doctrine of liberty and justice for all... source
Considering that even when Martin Luther King invoked the same sentiments of brotherhood and equality in the 1960's, they were still very controversial, I view Mr. Bellamy as quite progressive for his time. I wonder what someone of his caliber would say about a modern issue like equal treatment under the law for homosexuals? How has America measured up to his prediction that it would take "many thousands of years" to realize equality for all? But I digress..
Now we approach the addition of the crucial phrase that helps to enable bigoted religious fundamentals to justify their behavior. In 1951, the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization, decided to actively lobby President Eisenhower and the Congress to officially amend the Pledge of Allegiance to include the words "under God". The Knights failed for years, but the president was finally convinced on February 7th, 1954 during a sermon at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. The week after, Republican Charles Oakman addressed the Speaker of the House:
Last Sunday, the President of the United States and his family occupied the pew where Abraham Lincoln worshipped. The pastor, the Reverend George M. Docherty, suggested the change in our Pledge of Allegiance that I have offered [as a bill]. Dr. Docherty delivered a wise sermon. He said that as a native of Scotland come to these shores he could appreciate the pledge as something more than a hollow verse taught to children for memory. I would like to quote from his words. He said, 'there was something missing in the pledge, and that which was missing was the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life.' Mr. Speaker, I think Mr. Docherty hit the nail square on the head. source
On June 14th of 1954, President Eisenhower signed into law the bill which added the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance.
Recently, this phrasing has come under scrutiny and legal challenge from parents concerned that their children were being taught and required to participate in what amounts to prayer in public school. In 2002, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional in it's current form to be promoted in public schools.
A profession that we are a nation 'under God' is identical ... to a profession that we are a nation 'under Jesus,' a nation 'under Vishnu,' a nation 'under Zeus,' or a nation 'under no god.' source
Thankfully, it appears that America's Pledge of Allegiance may end up returning to a form closer to it's original in the years to come. Most important to me is the opportunity through my research to educate those who are ignorant of the facts, and to remove one more weapon from the arsenal of the fundamentalist zealots.