ONE NATION `UNDER GOD'
ONE NATION `UNDER GOD'
Pledge is a political, not a religious, issue
By Don Rose. Don Rose is a Chicago-area writer and political consultant
July 11, 2004
The U. S. Supreme Court recently punted on the issue, but sooner rather than
later the Pledge of Allegiance case is going to come before it again. Eventually,
the justices will have to determine once and for all whether the words "under
God" constitute an unconstitutional step down the slippery slope toward the
establishment of a state religion.
We can look forward to plenty of hand-wringing when that comes about, with
one side fuming about the moral perils of removing that small profession
of deistic faith from the lives of our children and the other visualizing
a crumbling of the Jeffersonian wall between church and state.
It is not, however, a religious but a political matter, as were all the changes
made to the pledge, including the insertion of those two words as the Cold
War was getting revved up.
The original pledge, written in 1892 as part of the celebration of the 400th
anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America, made no reference to God
or to the United States.
The way my mother learned it was, "I pledge allegiance to my flag and to
the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and
justice for all."
In 1923, as our immigrant population grew, it was changed to "I pledge allegiance
to the flag of the United States ..." because it was feared immigrants might
not understand to which flag they were pledging. A year later it was changed
to "the United States of America," in case those immigrants didn't understand
to which United States they were pledging.
When I was a schoolboy in the latter 1930s, we put our right hands over our
hearts for the words "I pledge allegiance," then extended those hands toward
the flag. But when World War II came along, the gesture looked too much like
a Nazi "heil" so we were told to keep hands on hearts throughout. It was
right about then, in 1942, that the pledge was officially sanctioned by Congress
as part of the U.S. Flag Code, though it already had been recited daily by
millions of kids for half a century. Soon after, however, the court ruled
that no child could ever be forced to give the pledge.
All stayed intact until 1954, when the wise men of the Eisenhower administration
decided we could deal a really smart public relations blow to the atheistic
Soviet Union by inserting "under God" between "one nation" and "indivisible."
How better to display our official piousness in the face of godless communism?
President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared, "[W]e are reaffirming the transcendence
of religious faith in America's heritage and future ..."--which sounds suspiciously
like a crack in that wall between church and state. What is most disturbing
about the move, however, is that it was not an act of genuine religious piety
but pure propaganda.
It was one of several political public relations gestures of the Cold War
era. In 1956 Congress adopted "In God We Trust" as our national motto. In
1958 a national holiday, Law Day, was invented to celebrate "the use of law
to achieve individual and social justice," according to its chief sponsor,
Charles S. Rhyne, then president of the American Bar Association.
That was certainly a noble goal--except for Rhyne acknowledging that the
rest of the agenda was to celebrate it on May Day, the international labor
holiday, when the Soviet Union held a gigantic parade displaying its army
and armaments. Our noble new holiday would steal some Soviet thunder and
contrast our rule of law with their rule of force. Never mind that May Day
is observed by thousands of non-communist labor organizations in our allied
nations throughout the world, and never mind that its roots lie here in the
good old U.S.A. A genuine homage to the rule of law could be celebrated on
almost any other day.
Of course, the kids of the 1920s and '30s who grew up reciting a godless
Pledge of Allegiance also grew up to win World War II and the Korean action.
We recognize them now, thanks to Tom Brokaw, as "the greatest generation."
The first generation of kids who grew up reciting "under God" turned out
to be what? The radical, drug-crazed, countercultural '60s generation--followed
closely by the narcissistic "me" generation, followed by the slacker and
hip-hop generations. Go figure!
We've always played political games with religiosity, taking God's name as
often for political gain as for moral sustenance. Since biblical times most
nations have tried to assure themselves that God is watching over them--and
perhaps not their enemies. Even the Nazis used the slogan "Gott mit uns,"
or God is with us. So too with the lunatics who flew planes into the World
On our side of World War II we sang "God Bless America" by Irving Berlin,
the ecumenical Jewish guy who also penned "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade."
We sang the triumphal "Coming In on a Wing and a Prayer" and the pragmatic
"Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition."
Our great historical documents and anthems tend to breach the church-state
divide. The U. S. Constitution makes no reference to God--though the preamble
speaks of "the blessings of liberty," which could have either a religious
or secular construction. Its First Amendment is the one that rules out the
establishment of a state religion.
The Declaration of Independence, however, is studded with phrases referring
to "nature's God," the "Creator," "divine providence" and so forth, but it
preceded the First Amendment by 15 years. Just before delivering the Gettysburg
Address in 1863, Abraham Lincoln inserted the words "under God" after "nation"
in the last sentence.
"The Star Spangled Banner," written in 1814--23 years after the amendment--does
not get around to any religious references until its obscure 4th verse, which
is not sung before Cubs games. It mentions heaven, then asserts, "this be
our motto, `In God is our trust.'" Amusingly enough, the adopted melody is
an old English drinking song that serenades the Greek god of wine, women
and song. It didn't formally become our national anthem until 1931, but the
alternative anthems sung in schools have similar overtones.
The final verse of "America," from 1831, calls God the "author of liberty"
and asks, "protect us by thy might, great God our king." It's rather what
you might expect of a song sung to the tune of Britain's "God Save the King."
The chorus of "America the Beautiful" from 1893 comes right out and prays
"God shed his grace on thee."
Both houses of Congress, of course, employ official chaplains and open their
sessions with prayers. The constitutionality of those actions has been frequently
challenged--to say nothing of their efficacy being questioned.
The most blatant yet enduring blending of church and state remains the use
of the motto "In God We Trust" on our currency, a practice that emanated
from the religious fervor generated during the Civil War. In 1861 a Pennsylvania
minister, Rev. M. R. Watkinson, noting that Secretary of the Treasury Salmon
R. Chase was "probably a Christian," implored him to use God's name on our
coins. "This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism," he wrote.
"This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally
Chase immediately ordered the U.S. Mint to come up with an appropriate slogan.
"In God We Trust" was chosen, echoing the line from the "Star Spangled Banner."
It took several acts of Congress to approve new words on currency, but eventually,
in fits and starts, it appeared on most of our coins. It did not, however,
appear on paper money until 1957, after the slogan became our official motto
during the Eisenhower administration. All this may suggest that money is
what we worship most--though if "under God" is ever struck from the pledge,
the money motto may go next.
I tend to mistrust most political professions of piety, whether they come
from George Bush or Bill Clinton, but I'm no lawyer, so I can't really judge
the constitutionality of the words in question. It's like asking how many
Supreme Court justices can dance on the head of a political pin.
But, in the unlikely case that we ultimately get a godless pledge, take heart.
Maybe we'll come up with another "greatest generation."
Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune