Why Exactly Are We “Under God”?

Claire Killian

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Every morning students across America come to school, and monotonically recite the same thirty-one words. It’s become so routine, we don’t ever think about it, saying the Pledge of Allegiance is just something you do, you don’t think about it, and you may not like it, but it happens, and when it does, you stand and mumble along. The Pledge of Allegiance is not the immortal document many of us assumed it was, having not been written at the birth of the country. In fact, it was changed as recently as sixty-five years ago to add perhaps it’s most controversial phrase, “under God”

The Pledge hasn’t changed that much since it’s first appearance in 1892, when New York minister Francis Bellamy wrote “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” While written to display loyalty to his country, historians theorize that Bellamy may have also been a socialist, and wrote the words to combat aggressive individuality and greed. Bellamy also proposed a popular and widespread salute to the flag which gradually fell out of favor because of it’s eery resemblance to the Nazi salute. The original words were published in a children’s magazine, and became popularized largely due to their marketing team. In 1942 the Pledge was recognized by the government, and was adapted to add “of the United States” and “to” before “republic”, this was a broadly popular move, and rallied national spirit just as we were entering WWII. This changed in 1948 when Illinois attorney Louis Bowman first added “under God” to the pledge, citing Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, which also says, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom”. This new, spiritual adaption of the Pledge spread across the country, and became increasingly popular, people even wrote to and met with sitting President Wilson to ask him to officialize it. The government officially involved itself in 1953, when Louis Rabaut, a Michigan Democrat, introduced a bill which would legally add in the “under God” portion. The bill failed, but by then the newly Presbyterian President Eisenhower had caught wind of the bill, and indicated his support to Charles Oakman, who reintroduced the bill, where it was passed. Eisenhower signed it into law on Flag Day, June 14, 1954. Eisenhower also made “In God We Trust” the National Motto two years later. 

The religious elements in the Pledge were added as the Cold War played on in the background. America was on its edge, and seeking to enhance their national identity. Adding “under God” to the Pledge helped to galvanize Christian America (which in 1954 was most of mainstream America) and generate some comfort in our God and Government, as the USSR rose to power in the backdrop. This marked a distinct line between ‘Godless Communism’ and the Lord loving American way. While it is clear that there was a large religious incentive to add “God” to our pledge, there was also the political notion of preparing the country for what would be a very different sort of war.

The Pledge has been controversial almost since its inception. In 1943, after the Pledge was recognized, but not controlled, by the Government, Jehova’s Witnesses took to the Pledge to the courts, claiming it infringed on their religious beliefs to be required to pledge allegiance. They eventually won their case, in a decisive victory which set the precedent of choice for American schools. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a group of parents, led by Michael Newdow, repeatedly sued individual school districts to remove “under God”, or stop saying the Pledge altogether. Newdow’s complaint rose to the Ninth Circuit, where he lost. The Circuit claimed that the Pledge does not represent a government endorsement of religion, which violates the American right to the separation of Church and State. Most recently, in 2014, the Massachusetts courts ruled that the Pledge does not discriminate against Atheists because it is a patriotic, not religious, display of faith. 

Loving one’s flag is not a uniquely American thing. Every nation holds a special place in their hearts for their colors. That being said, it is often shocking how devoted this country is to the flag. For a person to grow up not pledging allegiance, then to move to the United States and suddenly have to, is a strange change. While nobody doubts the importance and symbolism of the flag, to outsiders it seems rather totalitarian and a little Orwellian that every day millions of children around the country drone on the same thirty-one words. Of course, nobody is ever required to pledge allegiance, however if you are the only person sitting in a room of twenty-something standing peers, there will be pressure on you to conform. My personal recommendation for those reluctant to pledge allegiance, but who still respect the service members who fight for us, while not necessarily condoning their actions, is to stand, but not recite the pledge, and not to put your hand over your heart. By doing so you are acknowledging and signalling respect for the troops, without motioning that you agree with their actions, or those of the government. While this does technically break the flag code, just about everything from stars and stripes napkins to displaying it in advertising does too. 

Regardless of whether you fervently pledge allegiance each morning, meaning every word, or you sit in silence, or even if you just mindlessly mumble along because it’s eight in the morning, you’re tired and don’t really care, it’s nice to be informed.