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Atheists Mount Campaign to Boycott the Pledge of Allegiance



Kathy Schiffer - published on 09/12/14

Why the Pledge was originally silent about God and why it was changed 60 years ago.

The American Humanist Association (AHA) recently launched a national campaign to rally Americans against reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

You can probably guess what phrase the AHA finds offensive: naturally, it’s the part about “under God.” The ultimate aim of their “Don’t Say the Pledge” campaign is to have those two words officially deleted from the pledge. The campaign is currently being promoted through ads at bus stops in New York and Washington, D.C. and videos on YouTube.  

Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, explained the group’s objection to the Pledge:

“We want everyone to know that the current wording of the pledge discriminates against atheists and others who are good without a god, and we want them to stand up for fairness by sitting down until the pledge is restored to its original, unifying form.”

The AHA campaign iwas encouraged by a May 2014 study by The Seidewitz Group in New York that reported that 34 percent of Americans allegedly favor removing the words, after being told that “under God” was added to the pledge only in 1954. Earlier studies found that a mere 8 percent of respondents favored deleting the reference to God.

It is unlikely, however, that the atheists’ campaign to bleach God from public discourse will succeed.

On March 10, 2010, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals—regarded as the most liberal federal appellate court in the United States—ruled (2-1) in Newdow v. Rio Linda Union School District that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance were of a “ceremonial and patriotic nature” and, therefore, did not constitute an establishment of religion.

Later that year, on November 12, 2010, the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston unanimously affirmed a ruling by the federal district court in New Hampshire that the Pledge’s reference to God does not violate the rights of non-pledging students, if student participation in the Pledge is voluntary. And on June 13, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of that decision.

The History of the Pledge

It’s true that the Pledge of Allegiance was changed in 1954—and three times before that, since it was originally composed by Francis Bellamy in 1892. 

The omission of any reference to God in the original had nothing to do with “establishment of religion” concerns. It was no doubt due to the original purpose of the Pledge. Its author, Francis Bellamy, was a Baptist pastor, Christian socialist, and a man of strong faith. He wrote the Pledge with the intent of renewing love of country in the years after the Civil War, when patriotic ardor and national feeling seemed to have waned.

Bellamy’s original Pledge reflects exactly and only what was at stake in the Civil War—the unity of the United States, liberty for slaves and justice for all:

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

It was published on September 8, 1892, in the children’s magazine The Youth’s Companion, as part of the 400th anniversary celebration of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. The magazine’s publisher, James B. Upsham, hoped that participation in the National Public-School Celebration of Columbus Day would foster patriotism and the sale of American flags that would be flown in front of public schools. Upsham reportedly told his wife,

“If I can instill into the minds of our American youth a love for their country and the principles on which it was founded, and create in them an ambition to carry on with the ideals which the early founders wrote into The Constitution, I shall not have lived in vain.”

It was an Illinois attorney, Louis Bowman, who first proposed the inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge—a proposal which earned him an Award of Merit from the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, who agreed that the idea was a good one. Bowman, who served as Chaplain of the Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, took the words from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  Bowman first used the Pledge with the phrase “under God” on Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1948.    

In 1951, the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal association, also began incorporating the phrase “under God” when saying the Pledge of Allegiance at their meetings. By 1952, Knights across America were referencing God in their Pledge; and they campaigned to have the Knights of Columbus’ version of the Pledge be officially adopted.

Proponents of the revised Pledge tried unsuccessfully to persuade President Harry Truman to implement the change. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower came to office in January 1953, efforts were stepped up: Democratic Representative Louis C. Rabaut of Michigan sponsored a Congressional resolution to add the words “under God.”

The turning point came the following year, when President Eisenhower heard a sermon by Presbyterian pastor George MacPherson Docherty. On February 7, 1954—the Sunday closest to Lincoln’s birthday—Rev. Docherty preached a sermon entitled “A New Birth of Freedom” based on the Gettysburg Address.

The nation’s might, he said, lay not in arms but in its spirit and higher purpose. Docherty quoted the Pledge of Allegiance, and noted that it could be the pledge of any nation. What was missing, he said, was “the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life.” Docherty, well aware of tensions of the Cold War, cited Lincoln’s words “under God”—words which set the United States apart from other nations.

President Eisenhower responded enthusiastically. He stopped to speak to Reverend Docherty on the steps of the church; and the following day, the President took steps to effect the change. Rep. Charles Oakman (R-Mich.) introduced a bill to change the Pledge. Congress passed a Joint Resolution amending the Flag Code enacted in 1942. The new legislation was signed into law by the President on Flag Day—June 14, 1954.

That year, in his Flag Day address to the nation, President Eisenhower said:

“From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty ….  In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.”

Kathy Schifferis a freelance writer and speaker, and her blog Seasons of Grace can be found on the Catholic Portal at Patheos.

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