One nation under God

Published 7:37 am Wednesday, July 1, 2009

I am thinking of the Pledge of Allegiance as the United States of America’s most famous political holiday, July the Fourth, comes our way this Saturday.

There might be some who have to work on the Fourth, but, for the most part, this is a universal holiday for our country.

There will be plenty of hotdogs and hamburgers consumed. Iced-cold beverages of all kinds will be enjoyed. There will be patriotic concerts in parks, fireworks in the evenings as soon as the sun goes down, and plenty of flag waving. Red, white and blue are the colors of July the Fourth.

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The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America takes a little over 15 seconds to recite. It was written by a Baptist minister named Francis Bellamy in 1892 as part of the National Public School Celebration of Columbus Day. 1892 would have been the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America.

The Pledge of Allegiance will be recited by millions of Americans Saturday. It’s a shame that we don’t recite it more than we do. But when we say it now, do we truly listen to what we are saying?

One of the most popular YouTube vignettes from the old days is the one where Red Skelton, an old-time comedian, uses his television show to recite the Pledge. He begins by telling of a grade school teacher of his who came to class and, before the students were asked to recite the Pledge, told them that they seemed to be bored by its words.

The teacher, Skelton refers to him as Mr. Laswell, asks the students if he may recite the Pledge for them. Instead of simply taking the 15 seconds that it normally took, though, Mr. Laswell, takes each word and explains to the students what they mean. Skelton recites the Pledge as Mr. Laswell did, one word at the time, with plenty of explanation of the words. It’s very dramatic and worth four minutes of one’s time.

The original Pledge, written by Mr. Bellamy, was not the Pledge that we recite today. There have been a few changes through the years. For instance, the original Pledge stated that “I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the Republic for which it stands.”

During that time, as now, many immigrants were coming into the United States. To make certain that they knew to which flag they were pledging allegiance, in 1923, the Congress of the United States changed the words “my flag” to “the flag of the United States.” The next year, they added the words “of America.” It wasn’t until 1942 that the Congress officially recognized the Pledge as the official national pledge.

Reciting the Pledge was not automatically all right with everyone. Most Americans are proud to salute the flag and say the Pledge and we might think that those citizens who don’t want to do so are un-American and a recent thorn. That would not be true.

There are faiths that take seriously concepts like idolatry and feel that to pledge allegiance to anything or anyone other than God is sacrilege. They feel that way so strongly that they take to court their rights not to say a pledge. That happened all the way back in 1940 with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Supreme Court, however, decided against them and ruled that public school children could be compelled to recite the Pledge. Three years later the Court reversed itself.

By far the greatest and most controversial addition to Pledge came in 1954 under the Eisenhower administration. The words “under God” were added that year, although they had been unofficially used before then. The simple words, “under God,” were supposedly taken from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

The impetus for the words “under God” came from a Scottish minister who was assigned to the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, a sort of church of the presidents. President Lincoln had been the first to go there and rented a pew and, since his death, the presidents in Washington who were of a mind to go to church could always find a place there on that same pew.

The Scottish minister, whose name was George MacPherson Docherty, felt that the phrase “under God” was important to the Pledge of Allegiance. Without a reference to God, the Pledge was remiss in defining the absolute blessings that God Himself had uniquely bestowed on this great nation to which he had been assigned. Ironic, isn’t it, that it took someone from another country to press the issue of adding “under God” to our Pledge.

It happened that President Eisenhower was in attendance one Sunday when Docherty gave an impassioned sermon regarding the need for our Pledge to reference God Almighty. The very next week, Ike went to work and, within a very short time, had his supporters in Congress make the law that would add “under God” to our Pledge.

Since 1954, the Pledge has remained the same and has been challenged many times in the courts. As it stands now, the “under God” portion of the Pledge is still there. For how long it will remain, no one knows, although the vast majority of Americans would, I think, appreciate its presence in the Pledge.

Here is the complete Pledge of Allegiance: “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

May God continue to bless America and Happy Fourth of July to all of you.