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God vs. Communism: Our search for a national identity

 article about religion

This article belongs to Religion theme.


How a decade of racial and political turmoil, a religious president, and an activist priest shaped the religious identity of a nation.

The mid- to late 1950s were a time of upheaval
The Korean war was over. Jim Crow laws and racist attitudes were finally being challenged. McCarthyist anti-Communist hysteria was reaching a fever pitch thousands of Americans were blacklisted, fired, and jailed. The Cold War was ramping up, and U.S. military strategy had become one of "massive retaliation." To white Christian Americans, who felt vulnerable and threatened by "godless" Communists and de/segregationists, our very culture was under attack, and they struggled to define a national identity. Despite the historically rich diversity of the United States - both cultural and racial - it was defined by one group: white Christians.

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I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, With Liberty and Justice for all.
Defining the national identity
One aspect of the identity problem was redefined linguistically. The phrase "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. "In God we trust" was adopted as the national motto (to supersede the de facto, and inclusive, national motto, "E Pluribus Unum," "Out of Many, One") in 1956, and the phrase was added to all paper money in 1957, creating the image of an exclusively Christian nation. "Under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance 62 years after the pledge was written in its original secular form by Francis Bellamy. The original version reads:

"I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, With Liberty and Justice for all."

The New York City Knights of Columbus, a fraternal Catholic service group, had worked unsuccessfully from 1952 to 1954 to pressure the government into amending the pledge they felt it was insufficient without a reference to god. They argued that Abraham Lincoln had used the phrase in the Gettysburg Address, providing precedence. Finally, in 1954, at the urging of President Eisenhower, the pledge was changed:

"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."

The Gettysburg Address controversy
That Lincoln ever actually used that phrase at Gettysburg at all is hotly disputed by historians. The phrase does not appear in his notes for the address, and it is speculated that he may have improvised it during the speech. The first two copies of the address, including the one used at Gettysburg (the "Nicolay draft" and the "Hay draft,") do not include the phrase.

Interestingly, to Lincoln and his contemporaries, "under God" meant "God willing," according to linguists, which makes the phrase grammatically incorrect, and gives it a vastly different meaning.

An activist minister and a newly converted president
In 1954, Scottish Presbyterian minister George MacPherson Docherty, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian church near the White House, planned to tip the scales in favor of the amended pledge.

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Despite historical and grammatical inaccuracy, the phrase was added to the original pledge.
It was customary for sitting presidents to visit the church on the Sunday nearest to Lincoln's birthday, and sit in the same pew that was used by Lincoln. Docherty, knowing that President Eisenhower would be attending that service, delivered a stirring speech, in which he argued that without a reference to god, the original Bellamy pledge did not adequately embody the spirit of the nation.

The next day, Eisenhower, a new Presbyterian (a former Jehovah's Witness, he was confirmed and baptized as a Presbyterian 12 days after his inauguration), started the process toward making Docherty's suggestion into law. So, despite historical and grammatical inaccuracy, the phrase was added to the original pledge.

Protection against the establishment of a state religion
The altered pledge raises some important concerns. Applicants for U.S. citizenship must swear loyalty to the U.S. by taking the pledge. Because its use is a state-sponsored requirement, and because of the phrase "under God," the pledge violates the religion clauses in the First Amendment of the Constitution, which states that one religion cannot be given preference over another, and there cannot be a state religion or church.

For many citizens of the United States, such as Hindus and Muslims, the phrase violates protections against the establishment of a state religion, and because it shows preference of one religion over another. Interestingly, the Jehova's Witnesses were the first to challenge the pledge, because they considered it idolatry, and it violates their rights under the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment their religion prohibits them from swearing loyalty to any power lesser than god.

For Atheists, it is a matter of being required to recite this revised pledge of loyalty to a god we do not recognize, and the imposition of an unofficial state religion on us that is at issue. Atheists are citizens of the United States of America as much as are Hindus, Muslims, Jians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Shintos, or any other religion for which the Christian god does not apply. The inclusion of the phrase is a violation of all our rights as granted by the Constitution.

A nation for all religions, and for no religion
It may seem to some like an attempt to erode culture to the religious, but it should be noted again, that the original wording of the pledge was distinctly secular and inclusive. Christians should consider how they would feel if the pledge had been modified to contain an oath of loyalty to Brahma, Allah, Zeus or Odin.

The argument that this is a Christian nation is woefully inaccurate. As a condition of citizenship, immigrants are not required to change their religion to Christianity. They are not denied passports if they choose a religion other than Christianity (or choose no religion). They are not required to attend Christian services or schools. The government is not religious, and run by heads of state, not heads of churches.

Like it or not, this nation is founded on religious tolerance, and the separation of church and state, in order to provide us all with a government free from the shackles of any religion. To suggest that this nation is exclusively Christian is an offence to its ideals, which include liberty and justice for all. It is also an offence to its history. Our nation is made up of people from every nation, every language, every faith - including no faith - who have fought and died for her.




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