Freethought Almanac

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June 14: Pledges and Loyalty Oaths

"Under God" Added
to the Pledge of Allegiance (1954)

It was on this date, June 14, 1954, that President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a Congressional resolution which added the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. The pledge, which Congress had recognized officially a dozen years earlier, was originally written in August of 1892 by Francis Bellamy (1855-1931), a Baptist minister, and active Socialist. The Pledge was first published in a children's magazine, Youth's Companion, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the Americas. The original 22 words were:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Bellamy considered including the word "equality" in the pledge, but decided against it to avoid offending the many Americans (and Bellamy's publisher) who opposed equal rights for women and blacks. The American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1924 changed the Pledge's words, "my Flag," to "the Flag of the United States of America." Bellamy hated the change, but by then the Pledge was (in effect) no longer his. In the coming years, the Pledge would change again: the word "equality" was never inserted into the Pledge – but "God" was.

It was the 1950s. The Korean War. And the cold war was an issue in national politics. People and politicians were looking for ways to distinguish God-fearing Americans from those Atheistic Communists in Russia. On April 22, 1951, the Board of Directors of the Roman Catholic men's group, the Knights of Columbus, mounted a campaign to add the words "under God," after the words "one nation," in the Pledge. Some 15 resolutions were sent before Congress to change the Pledge. But none passed until President Eisenhower happened to hear a sermon by Rev. George Docherty on 7 February 1954.

"Apart from the mention of the phrase the United States of America," Docherty said, "it could be the pledge of any republic. In fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag in Moscow." Eisenhower was impressed. News spread, public opinion grew. A bill to add "God" to the Pledge was approved as a Congressional joint resolution on 8 June 1954. It was signed into law on that Flag Day, June 14.

President Eisenhower, who started the tradition of the "prayer breakfast," said at the time, "From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our Nation and our people to the Almighty..." It is odd, therefore, that when the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit decided, on 26 June 2002, that the words "under God" made the Pledge run afoul of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, they rejected the changed Pledge for the same reason that President Eisenhower accepted it: because it was a government endorsement of religion. A Supreme Court challenge by Atheist Micheal Newdow, in early 2004, resulted in a nimble sidestep on the merits: the Court decided against Newdow on the grounds that he had no standing to bring the case in the first place.

Newdow tried again and, eight years later, in a 2-1 decision on 11 March 2010, the 9th Circuit upheld the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, saying that the words were of a “ceremonial and patriotic nature” and did not constitute an establishment of religion. Eight months later, in a 1st Circuit case (in Boston), the Court decided that the words referencing God in the Pledge do not violate the rights of students who do not take the pledge, if student participation is voluntary. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal in June of 2011. But, for obvious reasons, the issue is ongoing.

Eisenhower specifically recognized the initiative of the Knights of Columbus in originating and sponsoring the amendment to the Pledge of Allegiance on August 17, 1954. Today, many have forgotten that Americans fought and died in two World Wars and the Korean conflict without acknowledging God in their loyalty oath. And those who claim that everything has gone downhill in this country since the 1950s – when amending the Pledge divided the nation into believers and non-believers – might pause to reflect that adding "under God" to the Pledge didn't help!

Originally published June 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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