We’re going to do something a little different today and take a historical trip. Today I am taking us back to the year 1954. 1954 was kind of a banner year for America. It was the year of Playboy, Brown v. Board, the beginning of the “domino theory” and the fall of Joe McCarthy. It was also the year that the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, which is what we’re going to focus on today.
When I was growing up there was the constant threat of “they” (I guess Democrats or atheists or both or the same) were trying to take “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance. This rumor persisted throughout much of my formative years, though I never heard anything about it in debates or on the news, but peers and grandparents alike were convinced that there were nefarious forces who were trying to strip God out of the Pledge. For them this would be a mighty blow against the Christian roots of our nation. We pledge to God as much as we do to the flag because we, as a country, believe in a Judeo-Christian, fatherly deity. So this threat, from wherever it came, was both political and spiritual.
Clearly nothing ever came of this rumor. And I’m not really sure where this rumor came from, except for maybe some fearmongering among the right to whip up the base and make sure that Christians voted against “them” which, of course, meant Democrats. I remember my grandmother telling me that Democrats weren’t as “spiritual” as Republicans, and that’s one reason she could never vote for them, so such threats could pack a powerful wallop.
But threats and rumors like these prove nothing except that Americans have short political memories. Because the phrase “under God” was never meant as a religious statement, but as a political one. I’ll give you the highlights of the arguments here, but if you want to read more about the power of this particular phrase, you can read my piece, “‘Under God:’ An Epideictic Weapon in the Fight Against Communism” in Re/Framing Identities from Waveland Press.
In 1892 Frances Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance. What many Americans do not know is that the phrase “under God” did not appear in the Pledge until 62 years later. His original pledge was “I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the Republic for which it stands – One Nation indivisible – with liberty and justice for all.” The movement to add “under God” actually began with a resolution by the Knights of Columbus in April of 1951, when they began adding “under God” to the Pledge they recited at the beginning of each meeting. In 1952 they called for Congress to follow suit, but lawmakers did not champion the cause until 1953 when, on April 20th, Representative Louis Rabaut introduced the idea to Congress. The only real resistance throughout the campaign to add “under God” to the Pledge came from teachers who felt it was too hard to remember and ruined the rhythm of the Pledge. Classrooms had grown accustomed to the original way of reciting the Pledge, and teachers feared changes would be an unwarranted disruption. Given that school children are prone to say the Pledge of Allegiance more frequently than most other Americans it is no surprise that teachers would be the most concerned about the change. That being said, disagreement from a group of teachers paled in comparison to the overwhelming support from other circles throughout the states.
On Feb. 7, 1954, President Eisenhower heard a sermon by George Macpherson Docherty. Docherty warned that the Pledge of Allegiance was not truly American and could be mistaken for a pledge to any flag, even a Soviet one. Docherty claimed that adding the phrase “under God” would be an affirmation of the American way of life. Docherty argued that since atheism was at the heart of Communism, proclaiming that America was united “under God” would make it abundantly clear that the Pledge was an American one, and could not be mistaken for a “Muscovite” oath. This convinced Eisenhower to throw his support behind an already very popular piece of legislation. Docherty, the man who convinced Eisenhower that “under God” was a necessary addition to the Pledge may have been a preacher, but his argument for the addition came from a very political starting point. He was, indeed, eager to associate God and America, but for the purposes of separating America from her Communist enemies. We often think of “under God” as some kind of religious sentiment, but in truth its origin was a political one. “Under God” was meant as an anti-communist statement.
Simply adding the words “under God” satisfied Congress’s concerns that the Pledge could have been mistaken for a Russian oath, and so they argued for this addition in order to appropriately American-ize the Pledge. Representative Rabaut felt that if Congress made
…the addition of the phrase ‘under God’ to the pledge of allegiance the consciousness of the American people will be more alerted to the true meaning of our country and its form of government. In this full awareness we will, I believe, be strengthened for the conflict now facing us and more determined to preserve our precious heritage.
He believed that adding the phrase was not just a symbolic measure but would actively and continually remind people of the “true meaning” or their own nation – somehow God would remind people of a democratic republic.
On four different occasions Congressmen referred to the words of George M. Docherty concerning the Pledge. Only two of these cite Dr. Docherty, but they all questioned the “American-ness” of the Pledge.
Has it ever occurred to you that the former wording of the pledge could serve any republic claiming to be indivisible and to insure liberty and justice for all? Remember, when you heard your own children recite the pledge of allegiance that these same words could have come from little Muscovite children standing before the Red hammer-and-sickle flag of Soviet Russia. You know and I know that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics would not, and could not, while supporting the philosophy of communism, place in its patriotic ritual an acknowledgement that their nation existed under God. Indeed, the one fundamental issue which is the unbridgeable gap between America and Communist Russian is belief in Almighty God.
Hon. Algier L. Goodwin of Massachusetts re-affirmed this statement in his commentary “‘Under God’ Would Help Combat Pagan Influences.” Goodwin hailed a local writer, Shirley Munroe Mullen, for her history of the Pledge and her support for this bill. Most importantly to both Mullen and Goodwin, this bill was so important because “pagan philosophies” had been “introduced by the Soviet Union,” and therefore it was “a necessity for reaffirming belief in God.” The addition to the Pledge could not be separated from communism – it was the heart of the issue. The Pledge, with the addition, made an argument for the identity of America. If she was god-fearing then she could not be communist. It was imperative to law makers that the Pledge aid in their efforts to carefully separate Americans from communists.
Senator Homer Ferguson explained:
We now live in a world divided by two ideologies, one of which affirms its belief in God, while the other does not. One part of the world believed in the unalienable rights of the people under the Creator. The other part of the world believes in materialism and that the source of all power is the state itself.
Representative Jack Brooks of LA believed that free nations were battling “for their very existence.” Brooks argued that “In adding this one phrase to our pledge of allegiance to our flag we in effect declare openly that we denounce the pagan doctrine of communism.” He and his colleagues were terrified of what they saw as dangerous ideologies encroaching on their lives, so they set out to try and make as distinct a separation between America and her enemies as possible.
Representative Frank Addonizio described the importance of the pledge as a declaration of a very specific version of American: “…we who take the pledge of allegiance to the flag….should bear in mind that our citizenship is of no real value to us unless our hearts speak in accord with our lips; and unless we can open our soul before God and before Him conscientiously say, ‘I am an American.'” To Addonizio the Pledge was not just a simple recitation, but an oath to something greater than himself – his country. The Pledge was a public proclamation that the speaker was an American, and a proud bearer of the qualities that “American” entailed.
That being said, while Americans and their elected leaders were anxious to solidify their nation “under God,” they were not so eager to specify exactly what kind of God defined America. For example, Senator Ralph Flanders tried to take things to the extreme and proposed an amendment that would proclaim that “This nation devoutly recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of nations, through who are bestowed the blessings of the Almighty God,” but the proposal never got out of committee. In fact, when the proposal was presented only one other person even showed up to listen. Flander’s failed effort, which took place around the same time as the efforts to include “under God” in the Pledge, indicates something significant about the understanding of “God” and his importance to being American: it was God that was important to lawmakers, not Christianity. A more generic God was easier to use as a kind of rhetorical unifier, whereas a specifically Christian God or a proclamation that Christ was what defined “America” made our national identity too narrow.
Hon. John R. Pillion of the House of Representatives argued that the addition to the Pledge “would serve to deny the atheistic and materialistic corruption of Communism. It would condemn the absolute and concentrated power of the communistic slave state with its attendant subservience of the individual.” Since Pillion apparently felt that the connection between individuality and God was, he did not attempt to explain the connection. It was, for Pillion, simply the case. But part of the Cold War narrative was that in America we could be individuals, while in Russia the Communist regime stripped its citizens of their individual personhood, so here was another way God delineated us from our enemies.
Rep. Brooks, of Louisiana, went so far as to claim this was the primary thing that separated the two dueling philosophies. The phrase “under God” would publicly proclaim America’s separation from the East. The Pledge would be a specifically Western, American pledge with the addition of the phrase “under God.”
Free nations today battle for their very existence in many parts of the world. Communism with its siren voice of false appeal is heard round the world and many peoples and many nations fall prey to these false headlights of the shores of time. One thing separates free peoples of the Western World from the rabid Communist, and this one thing is a belief in God. In adding this one phrase to our pledge of allegiance to our flag, we in effect declare openly that we denounce the pagan doctrine of communism and declare “under God” in favor of free government and a free world.
But it was Senator William Langer, the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who made the argument most explicitly. Langer explained that “there was something missing in the pledge, and that which was missing was the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life.” “Under God” would be the ultimate sign that the Pledge of Allegiance was to an American flag and could never be mistaken for America’s Communist enemies. Certainly, “under God” indicated a connection to the divine, but that connection was important because it removed us even further from our enemies, the Soviets. A nation that was “under God” could never be a Communist nation.
On May 10, 1954, the Senate unanimously passed the resolution and on June 7th, the House completed the legislative process and sent the bill on to the President. Arguments in both the House and the Senate never really showed much more creativity than what Eisenhower heard from Docherty. But there was no real reason to strive for a great deal of variety when there was no real opposition to the original arguments.
The real reasoning for the phrase “under God” may seem like hair-splitting today when most people have just kind of adopted it as religious sentiment. Why does it matter if it was an anti-communist statement when we are not in the Cold War anymore?
I think there are a few reasons.
One, we need to think about who our enemies are. Are we fighting against Russia now? Are we fighting against terrorists? Our enemies seem to be coming at us from all sides and angles.
If we are fighting against terrorists, then “under God” could mean a lot to some people politically. There are many who equate terrorism with Islam. I would like to think that since 9-11 we would have been able to deal with our anti-Muslim sentiment, but Donald Trump enacted a literal Muslim ban. There are those in the US who would like to see Islam banned from our country. So “under God” takes on a new meaning, then. It’s not just a religious statement. It’s a statement about who we are and are not. We are a nation under God, not Allah (ignoring that “Allah” is just the name for God). It is exactly the same kind of divisive rhetoric it was in the 1950s, but now we have a new enemy – but they are from different parts of the world. If it is American to be “under God” then we can separate ourselves from our enemies who do not believe in the same God.
This takes on a different meaning, however, in the current clime than it did during the Cold War. When we were facing the Communists, we were believers, and they were non-believers and that was the divide. In the War on Terror we have two different belief systems. We are “under God” and they are a completely different religion. This is a whole new danger because for those who see “under God” as a religious sentiment this has now become a religious war.
Another reason I think it is important to think about the Pledge historically is because of a topic we have touched on in this podcast recently: the rise of Christian Nationalism. There is a frightening movement afoot to combine nationalism, racism, and Christianity, and we have seen just how violent and dangerous that movement can be this year. This is not a fringe movement anymore but something that has moved into the mainstream and threatens to make major political and legislative moves.
It is essential that we remember “under God” was a political statement and not a religious one because we cannot let religious zealots make a theocracy out of our nation. “Under God” was never meant to be a religious statement. It was meant as an anti-communist one. That’s why pledges to Christ were blatantly ignored by the same Congress. We were not pledging to be a Christian nation but an anti-communist one. We can’t forget that because there are political forces now, in the US, who want to make Christianity the center of our legislation. America must be driven by equality under the law, justice, and a devotion to opportunity for all, not fundamentalist doctrine. “Under God” was never meant as an excuse to instill the law with religious fervor. History demands we be honest with ourselves.
If we can’t tell the difference between religion and politics, then we are living in dangerous times. The church and the state should not be the same institution. That’s literally medieval. The Pledge of Allegiance was never meant to be a religious statement. And we need to honor that and recognize the importance of that for today’s political contexts. Most importantly, we need to be able to figure out what is religion and what is politics – what is the church and what is the state – and keep those dividing lines stable.