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Pledge of Allegiance

By Kerby Anderson

The Pledge of Allegiance was written 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister who also embraced many socialist ideas. In fact, his brother was a well-known author of books with socialist themes.

He wrote the pledge for the Columbus Day celebration marking the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America. On that day, several million children recited the pledge in its original form. “I pledge allegiance to my flag, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” It was a secular pledge that emphasized the liberty and the American union.

As the pledge began to be used, there was some concern that the words “my flag” might cause confusion among the large number of immigrants (nearly a half million immigrants were coming to America every year). In order to assure that the pledge was being given to the American flag and not an immigrant’s home country flag, the wording was changed to “the flag of the United States of America.”

The Pledge of Allegiance grew in popularity, and many states enacted legislation to require the recitation of the pledge. The Pledge of Allegiance gained official recognition when in 1942 Congress included the pledge in the U.S. Flag Code. The next year, the Jehovah’s Witnesses challenged the mandatory recitation of the pledge, and the Supreme Court ruled that governments could not force students to say the pledge.

The final alteration of the pledge occurred in 1954 when Congress inserted the words “under God.” These words are, of course, the reason for the lawsuit that has now reached the Supreme Court.

The Origin of “Under God”

Where did Congress find the phrase “under God”? Most school children could probably answer that question, especially if they were required to memorize Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

When Lincoln traveled to that Pennsylvania town in November 1863 to dedicate a national cemetery, he used the opportunity to define (we might even say, to redefine) the nature and purpose of this “great Civil War.” He concluded his speech by saying “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

There is some indication that Lincoln added the words “under God” while sitting on the stage since they are not found in the copy of the speech he carried to the ceremony. All who heard the speech agree that he used the words “under God” and it is found in subsequent copies of the speech that he wrote out in longhand.

It is quite possible that Lincoln adopted those words from George Washington (either indirectly or directly). One of Lincoln’s favorite books as a child was Parson Ween’s biography The Life of George Washington. The phrase is used in a description of Washington’s death.

It is also possible that Lincoln also knew of George Washington’s orders to the Continental Army. Washington’s written orders said “The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army.” And on July 9, 1776 he directed that Declaration of Independence be read aloud to the troops and again expressed in his orders that “this important Event will serve as a fresh incentive to every officer and soldier to act with fidelity and courage, as knowing that now the peace and safety of the Country depends, under God, solely on the success of our arms.”

The Supreme Court Case

The case has become a no-win situation for those who believe that we should acknowledge God in the Pledge of Allegiance. First, it is quite possible that the Supreme Court will agree with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that the pledge is a violation of the Establishment Clause. Second, if the court does rule the pledge constitutional, it will probably do so by arguing that the words “under God” are not religious but merely a common, patriotic phrase.

How could the court rule the pledge unconstitutional? The Supreme Court could simply agree with the reasoning of the court of appeals and note that the words “under God” weren’t added until 1954 and were intended to promote a belief in God. The court could also say that since the pledge is recited in the midst of a captive audience (school children) it is coercive. Or the justices could agree with the plaintiff that the pledge it offensive to atheists and agnostics as well as people of different faiths. Even if the decision ended in a 4 to 4 tie (since Justice Scalia has recused himself from the case), the pledge would be declared unconstitutional.

If the court rules in favor of the pledge, it would probably do so by arguing that the phrase “under God” is not merely a religious phrase but a common phrase used in American history. Such a ruling would surely strip much of the religious content from the phrase. I doubt too many Christians would be excited about a decision in favor of the pledge that also argued that the words “under God” are a secular phrase.

It will be months before the Supreme Court hears the case and additional months before the justices rule on the case. At the moment, it doesn’t look too promising however the court rules.

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