The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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).