Affirming “Under God” Ruling Is a Higher Form of Patriotism

So "Under God" is unconstitutional after all. Last week the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a controversial 2002 ruling that public schools can't make students recite that two-word phrase as part of the Pledge of Allegiance. In the nine Western states that this court covers, official recitals of the God-infused pledge are now forbidden.

Unlike last June, when politicians savaged a three-judge panel that struck down public-school recitals of the religious form of the pledge, the reaction to last week's news has been muted. Almost everyone, it appears, expects the Supreme Court to overturn the judgment.

But that expectation may be misplaced. Although their shutting down of ballot-counting in the 2000 election made it plain that the justices aren't above politics, their own precedents — and the weight of history – should nonetheless force them to see that the religious intent of "Under God" makes last week's judgment the only reasonable one.

Originally, the Pledge of Allegiance was a testament of patriotism, not religious faith. Written in 1892 by the socialist Francis Bellamy, a cousin of the radical writer Edward Bellamy, it omitted reference not only
to God but also, curiously, to the United States: "I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."  Soon public schools and voluntary societies were starting their days and meetings with the oath.

Then politics intervened. In the 1920s, the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution argued that immigrants might construe the pledge as a vow of loyalty to their native lands. "My flag" became "the flag of the United States of America."

The next revision of the pledge proved far more controversial. The Red Scare of the 1950s brought with it a much-heralded "religious revival." The evangelical Rev. Billy Graham rose to celebrity denouncing communism as a "satanic religion," while Secretary of State John Foster Dulles argued that Christianity was what distinguished Americans from the Russians.

Politicians outbid one another to prove their piety. Congress created a prayer room in the Capitol. It added the words "In God We Trust" to paper money in 1955. In 1956 the same phrase replaced "E Pluribus Unum" as the nation's official motto.

The new religiosity spawned the push to add "under God" to the Pledge. In the early '50s the Catholic fraternal society the Knights of Columbus had added "under God" to the pledge that its members used in their own meetings. The Knights bombarded Congress with calls for the United States to do the same. In April 1953, a Michigan congressman introduced a bill to alter the pledge.

Then, in February 1954, the Rev. George M. Docherty, a Washington, D.C., Presbyterian pastor, gave a sermon — with President Eisenhower in attendance — urging the addition of "under God" to the pledge as a way to distinguish the United States from the atheistic Soviet Union. Congress took up the bill again.

The one-sided speechifying that followed on Capitol Hill proved that the bill's purpose was to promote religion. The act's legislative history stated that lawmakers wanted to "acknowledge the dependence of our people and our Government upon . . . the Creator." On signing the bill, Eisenhower exulted: "Millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town . . . the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty."

As this history of religious intent indicates, "under God" was inserted for the express purpose of endorsing religion. And that, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, is unconstitutional. In a 1971 case, Lemon v. Kurtzman, the Court said laws or government practices cannot have a religious purpose, primarily advance or promote religion or excessively entangle government and religion. Lemon rankles conservatives, who claim that it's all too aptly named, but it remains the law of the land.

Although this Court has permitted greater government support for religion than did its predecessors, it has also upheld Lemon in key rulings. To do so again would be unpopular. But in honoring the Constitution, it would also express the highest form of patriotism.

Historian David Greenberg is a visiting scholar at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Mass.