The Magazine

"Under God"

From the October 18, 2003 issue: The history of a phrase.

Oct 27, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 07 • By JAMES PIERESON
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The Establishment Clause prohibits government from making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person's standing in the political community. Government can run afoul of that prohibition in two principal ways. One is excessive entanglement with religious institutions. . . . The second and more direct infringement is government endorsement or disapproval of religion. Endorsement sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community.

These words are reasonably clear, and one has to concede that the judges on the lower court did not have to stretch O'Connor's doctrine all that far to reach the conclusion that the pledge, with its current wording, represents an endorsement (and thus an establishment) of religion. Still, these judges were more than a little disingenuous in citing her opinion as a ruling authority in this case, since this doctrine has not yet been endorsed by a majority of justices on the Supreme Court. Nor has O'Connor used her doctrine to clear away entanglements between religion and government. Indeed, in the case cited by the Ninth Circuit, she ruled that a local government could display a manger scene on public property during Christmas season. Such displays, she concluded, did not rise to the level of an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

Perhaps Justice O'Connor will find that the judges on the Ninth Circuit abused her words to reach their conclusion. But, if this is so, perhaps she will also recognize that the doctrine outlined in Lynch provides little guidance as to what kinds of endorsement of religion do violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In any case, all the justices (minus Scalia, who has recused himself) must now decide if Congress exceeded its powers when it inserted "under God" into the Pledge of Allegiance.

Before this happens, however, it might be helpful to look a little more deeply into the actual history of the pledge. Why do we have the pledge in the first place? Where did Congress find the phrase "under God?" And is it true, as the Ninth Circuit implied, that the phrase, as inserted into the pledge, has no patriotic significance? These are questions worth pondering.

THE PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Massachusetts educator who headed a committee of civic leaders that was in charge of planning Columbus Day celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America. The pledge, then as now, was a statement of national principle emphasizing the post-Civil War themes of the permanence of the American union and the liberty of all of her people. The pledge, in addition, promoted patriotism and national unity during a period when the country was attracting more than 500,000 immigrants a year.

On Columbus Day 1892, several million schoolchildren across the nation recited Bellamy's pledge: "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 oath, with no mention of God or religion. Nor as it gained popularity did anyone, so far as is known, complain that the pledge was excessively secular. It soon became customary for children across the nation to recite the pledge at the beginning of the school day.

There was some concern, however, that the words "my flag" might cause some confusion among the large number of immigrants who were coming to America in the early years of the century. Such words, it was feared, might unwittingly encourage loyalty to the various immigrant homelands. In 1924, therefore, the National Flag Conference approved a slight change of wording in the pledge to clarify that reference. Now the pledge read: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

The Pledge of Allegiance continued to grow in popularity after this alteration. Many states enacted legislation to require the recitation of the pledge in public schools. It received official recognition in 1942 when Congress included the pledge in the U.S. Flag Code. In 1943, the Jehovah's Witnesses challenged the mandatory recitation of the pledge in public schools. In a landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled that governments could not force students to participate in the flag salute against their will or contrary to their beliefs--a ruling that remains the law of the land today.