The political game of patriotic one-upmanship through the use of patriotic symbols has been part of the American landscape at least since Betsy Ross came up with a flag design that George Washington felt expressed the fledgling country’s principals better than any of the competing flags being promoted by his political rivals.
And so it is with the Pledge of Allegiance. In fact, the birth of the Pledge and its first use as a special feature of a celebratory event has definite overtones of political maneuvering and grandstanding. As we know, Francis Bellamy convinced President Benjamin Harrison to authorize the Pledge after first getting Harrison’s past (and future) opponent Grover Cleveland to throw his weight behind it. And Harrison wisely used his position as sitting president to win that round of the match—although he lost his next presidential bid to Cleveland. The real winner, of course, was Bellamy, since this act by Harrison was the beginning of the legend that cemented Bellamy’s Pledge in the American consciousness.
While politicians have used the Pledge for decades as a political football, various groups and individuals (both within the political spectrum and outside) have tried to add, subtract, reposition, reinterpret, contest, and embrace the oath, from a multiplicity of viewpoints, to express their particular political perspectives or gain political advantages. An antiabortion group, for instance, would like the Pledge to be rewritten to say “with liberty and justice for all, born and unborn.” Some women’s rights advocates would like to see the wording altered to say, “with liberty and justice for all men and women.” Another group gathered considerable support in the early 1970s to add the word “responsibilities” to the Pledge so that it would end with a reminder of duty toward a national commitment: “with liberty, justice and responsibilities for all.”
As these different points of view jockey for a position around the oath to the flag, the courts have been called on to toss around a political hot potato, trying to maintain the appearance of nonpartisanship. But even while nodding toward a court’s objectivity, we recognize the essential political strings attached to the courts each time a president appoints a new Supreme Court justice and we are treated to the spectacle—more so in recent years—of partisan questioning by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Though there have been many “surprises” with such appointments, it is no secret that presidents hope their nominees to the high court will carry on their legacy, and their point of view, long after they have left the White House.
The power of a Supreme Court decision, as well as lower court rulings, is limited, of course, since those decisions do not automatically require a purging and updating of laws. Instead, a Supreme Court decision applies only to the specific situation brought before the Court; its application to other laws or situations is handled on a case-by-case basis, in further court action. Indeed, we are a “nation of laws,” but they are laws constantly being challenged, reinterpreted, rewritten, and ignored, as new situations arise, new contexts within which to view those specifics. Though judicial experts often talk about an issue being “settled,” in fact, very few are. As we saw in the reversal of the Gobitis and Barnette cases, the Supreme Court can change its mind.
Actually, in the wake of the Barnette decision, some defiant school districts tried to continue enforcing mandatory Pledge participation, citing the minority decision in the Supreme Court case and hoping that the courts would change their minds again. These defiant actions didn’t get very far. The U.S. Justice Department notified all U.S. attorneys in November 1943 that these actions against religious freedom should be dealt with firmly before they ended up in lawsuits.
Still, thousands of laws, including laws mandating Pledge ceremonies, remain “on the books” despite having been deemed unconstitutional by a Supreme Court decision. They remain on the books simply because no one has bothered to challenge them, or, perhaps more commonly, no state or local agency has bothered to enforce the laws and thereby have avoided a legal challenge.
By the late 1940s, however, as America emerged from a patriotic and popular war, there were fewer challenges to mandatory Pledge participation and, once again, the oath enjoyed overwhelming popularity as a central expression of Americanism on the global stage. And politicians soon found the Pledge a perfect instrument for building the nationalism needed to fight the new war, a Cold War that began in the early 1950s and would dominate the world’s geopolitics for the next half century. In large part due to the brevity and expressiveness its author bestowed on it, the Pledge became the symbol of perceived basic differences between American ideals and the growing strength and influence of communism in the Soviet Bloc.
But as it was the touchstone of American ideals in the face of godless communism, some found Bellamy’s Pledge lacking—lacking, in fact, just two words.
The two words were, of course, “under God.”
That the Pledge lacked something was a sentiment that started gathering support after the first recorded use of the added words “under God” during a Pledge recitation on February 12, 1948, at a Lincoln’s Birthday celebration in Chicago at the Illinois Society of the SAR. The idea of adding the words is credited to Louis A. Bowman, the chaplain of the Illinois Society. The relevance of introducing the additional words at the Lincoln celebration is that Bowman wanted the Pledge to reflect the words Lincoln had used in his 1863 Gettysburg address:
this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.
There have been many interpretations of Lincoln’s “under God” in this context. One linguistic historian claims that during Lincoln’s time people would have understood “under God” to mean “God willing.” Whether or not this historic interpretation of linguistics is accurate (and there are scholars who would disagree), by the time Bowman took the initiative to add the deity to the national oath, there seemed little doubt that he meant “God’s guidance” or “God’s approval” or even “God’s acknowledgment of rightness” of the specific nation, the United States. And in the subsequent lobbying effort, those definitions were surely the ones promoted by “under God” proponents to emphasize the difference between the United States and the “godlessness” of the Communist Soviet Union and its satellite countries.
By 1951 the “under God” movement gained great traction when it became a cause of the Knights of Columbus, which gave it the same strong support that the group gave the original Columbus Day celebration. Only now the Knights were a much more powerful organization, representing millions of Catholics and armed with a healthy war chest. Though some of the anti-Catholic sentiment that had been the original motivation behind the formation of the Knights had dissipated by the 1950s, there remained considerable concern about “the Papists” taking over the White House, which is what worried many people when John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960. It was no small irony that the Pledge, which was born at a time when Catholics were excluded from many of the benefits it trumpeted, would find among twentieth-century Catholics its staunchest supporters. But it didn’t hurt that the Pledge was born in a celebration of the group’s namesake, Christopher Columbus, the founder of modern America, a Catholic, and Italian.
Added to those already strong bonds, as we saw in the previous chapter, Catholics had no love lost for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who had been a constant burr in the Papists’ side for years prior to the Supreme Court Pledge challenge. Beginning in the early part of the twentieth century, Witness leader “Judge” Rutherford waged a war of words against the “idolatry” of Catholics. In turn, Catholics were among the most outspoken groups in support of the high court’s ruling against the Witnesses in the Gobitis case. (One Catholic parish had organized a boycott of the Gobitas store in Minersville.)
While there does not seem to be any explicit evidence that the Knights promoted “under God” as a direct reaction to the Witnesses’ success at the Supreme Court, they didn’t need the sect to whet their “under God” fervor. Catholics were among the most ardent anti-Communists in America.
In fact, in early 1951 the Knights made the addition of “under God” a requirement for meetings of the group’s highest member level, Fourth Degree Assemblies. And before the end of 1952, the Supreme Council of the Knights of Columbus passed a resolution to require the change in wording at all of the group’s meetings. In addition, the Supreme Council sent off copies of their resolution to all government leaders, including the president, urging congressional action to add “under God” to the Pledge.
Coinciding with the Knights’ push to include “under God” was a general movement toward public expression of religious worship involving government approval. For example, in 1952 Congress called for a National Day of Prayer to be held annually. President Dwight Eisenhower introduced the National Prayer Breakfast and Congress set aside a room in the Capitol for prayer. These and other actions might simply have reflected a growing American move toward embracing religion. But whenever a new religious ceremony was added to some public event, it was draped in anticommunism and what was perceived as the growing threat from the Soviet Union. It was God that distinguished the United States from the USSR. In a 1953 speech, President Eisenhower spoke of the special role of God when he said:
faith is the living source of our spiritual strength. And this strength is our matchless armor in our worldwide struggle against the forces of Godless tyranny and oppression.
There is no doubt that this, like other statements of the time, combined God and politics.
Quite ironically, Eisenhower had been raised a Jehovah’s Witness (when it was still called the Tract Society), the very group, of course, that would later call the Pledge of Allegiance a tool of Satan. During his childhood, Eisenhower’s parents—particularly his mother, Ida—were active in the Watchtower group. The Eisenhower home in Abilene, Kansas, was routinely used as a meeting place for weekly Bible studies under the Watchtower aegis. Eisenhower turned away from the teachings of the sect when he entered West Point in 1915. But his mother remained an ardent Jehovah’s Witness until her death in 1946. Eisenhower’s father reportedly drifted away from the sect, but when he died in 1942, he was given a full Jehovah’s Witness funeral. In one of the more bizarre familial contradictions in American presidential history—and there have been many—Eisenhower’s mother, who as a Jehovah’s Witness was antiwar, expressed during her lifetime a pride in her son’s accomplishments but also a disappointment that he had pursued a military career. Despite the scrutiny that political leaders undergo concerning their religious affiliations, Eisenhower’s religious background, no doubt because of savior status as an American general in World War II, was never questioned.
When asked about his religious background, Eisenhower provided a vague description of growing up in a household that followed strict biblical scripture. In fact, he professed no official connection to any religious group prior to his election as president. It wasn’t until thirteen days after his inauguration that he was baptized, confirmed, and entered into membership of the Presbyterian faith. He then regularly attended church service at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. This Presbyterian membership would later serve as a critical deciding factor for Eisenhower’s support for adding “under God” to the Pledge.
In the spring of 1953 the first congressional resolution was introduced to officially add “under God” to the Pledge. Several other resolutions were introduced over the next year but failed to generate enough enthusiasm or support to get through the committee process even to be voted on.
Then, on February 7, 1954, a single event propelled the movement into a snowball that culminated in the official addition of “under God” to the Pledge on Flag Day, June 14, 1954.
The event was an impassioned sermon commemorating Lincoln’s birthday given by the Reverend George MacPherson Docherty at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, the very congregation Dwight Eisenhower had joined just two years earlier. Abraham Lincoln himself had frequently attended services in the church, and there was a traditional Lincoln pew that on February 7, 1954, was occupied by Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower.
While the Catholic Knights of Columbus had set the groundwork for adding “under God” to the Pledge, what sealed the deal was a Presbyterian minister who literally had the president’s ear.
In an electrifying and rousing sermon, Docherty hit every point of political and religious patriotism of the day. He focused specifically on what he considered the missing element of the Pledge that he noticed when hearing his children recite it:
There was something missing in this Pledge, and that which was missing was the characteristic and definitive factor in the “American Way of Life.” Indeed, apart from the mention of the phrase, the United States of America, this could be the Pledge of anyRepublic. In fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar Pledge to their hammer and sickle flag in Moscow with equal solemnity, for Russia is also a Republic that claims to have overthrown the tyranny of kingship.
Then Docherty identified the one element that would separate the Pledge in the United States from one that could be recited in Soviet Russia, an element that Abraham Lincoln had insightfully identified nearly one hundred years before:
It is the one fundamental concept that completely and ultimately separates Communist Russia from the democratic institutions of this Country. This was seen clearly by Lincoln. “One nation UNDER GOD” this people shall know a new birth of freedom. And “UNDER GOD” are the definitive words. . . . We face, today, a theological war. . . . It is . . . a battle of the gods. It is the view of man as it came down to us from the Judeo-Christian civilization in mortal combat against modern, secularized, godless humanity. . . . To omit the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is to omit the definitive character of the “American Way of Life.”
Docherty next addressed the issue of the separation of church and state promised in the U.S. Constitution. He interpreted the First Amendment guarantee only as not allowing an official church of the state, not a denial of a supreme being. He wound up his sermon by arguing the continuity of the use of the acknowledgment of God throughout government activities as the logical reason for adding “under God” to the Pledge:
In Jefferson’s phrase, if we deny the existence of the “God who gave us life,” how can we live by “the liberty he gave us at the same time”? This is a God fearing nation. On our coins, bearing the imprint of Lincoln and Jefferson, are the words “In God We Trust.” Congress is opened with prayer. It is upon the Holy Bible the President takes his oath of office. Naturalized citizens, when they take their oath of allegiance, conclude solemnly, with the words “so help me God.”
These same arguments would be used over and over in the future whenever the inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge was contested.
Docherty’s sermon was immediately celebrated by Eisenhower and throughout the country. It was reprinted in popular book form. Its influence spread through Congress and, despite some minor squabbling, Congress passed the resolution with almost no opposition.* “I have been most pleased to note in the press a report of the sermon,” said Congressman Louis Rabaut (D.-Mich.), who had already introduced the bill “to Amend the Pledge of Allegiance to Include the Phrase ‘Under God,’ ” addressing his House colleagues. “You may argue from dawn to dusk about differing political, economic, and social systems, but the fundamental issue which is the unbridgeable gap between America and Communist Russia is a belief in Almighty God.” And he summed up perfectly the logic of the anti-Communist fervor of the time:
From the root of atheism stems the evil weed of communism and its branches of materialism and political dictatorship. Unless we are willing to affirm our belief in the existence of God and His creator-creature relation to man, we drop man himself to the significance of a grain of sand and open the floodgates to tyranny and oppression.
Fittingly, on June 14, 1954, Flag Day—just a few months after Docherty’s sermon—Eisenhower signed the bill into law.
Right after the signing, on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, the new Pledge was recited by a group of government officials and representatives from such groups as the American Legion. A bugle rendition of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” followed. The event was carried live on the CBS network with commentator Walter Cronkite declaring it a “stirring event.”
The historic influence of Docherty’s sermon continued with the related Cold War adoption of the phrase “In God We Trust” as the official motto of the United States, which was signed into law by Eisenhower in 1956.
Both actions were embraced with overwhelming popularity by politician and voters alike, Republicans and Democrats. Embarrassingly for the Democrats, however, a televised recitation of the Pledge during the 1956 Democratic National Convention accidentally left out the phrase “under God.” The change in wording took some time to get used to.
While there were a few dissenting voices concerning the direct official expression of “God” in connection with government, those voices were squelched quickly and effectively. As early as 1957 there was a court case brought by the Freethinkers of America against the New York State commissioner of education asking that the phrase be deleted. The request was summarily denied by using the novel argument, in part, that although the Constitution prohibited a “State Religion,” it did not prohibit the development of a “Religious State.” And the court suggested that if someone had an objection to the phrase that it was simple enough just not to say it while reciting it.
Although a few other attempts were made to bring the issue to court, it would be fifty years before a concerted effort to challenge the words “under God” would hit the national scene in the Pledge’s third trip to the Supreme Court.
But during the years before that case, the Pledge was no less a national political firebrand—beginning in the turbulent 1960s and continuing to this day.
The seemingly cohesive American collective state of mind of the 1950s that gave America an “under God” and an “In God We Trust” slipped away as the Vietnam War heated up and the draft loomed large in the lives of young American men. This controversial military action, combined with the racial unrest and civil rights controversies of the period, as well as rapidly changing social mores that ranged from abortion to widening recreational drug use, began polarizing Americans in a way unseen since, perhaps, the Civil War. This time the polarization was not strictly geographical.
The Pledge once again became a weapon.
On one side, people who opposed the political direction of the country wanted to show their disapproval by abstaining from reciting the Pledge during occasions when the Pledge was traditionally recited. These people even started refusing to stand while the Pledge was being said. In the past, those who refused to say the Pledge generally compromised by standing silently during the recitation.
On the other side, an “America, love it or leave it” mentality boiled up among many people in positions of authority to force the objectors into saying the Pledge or be subject to punishment. The justification for this new round of reprisals was that the Supreme Court decision in the Barnettecase only permitted Constitutional abstention from reciting the Pledge based on religious convictions and not on political convictions to serve as a protest. So, for example, in 1963 a group of Black Muslim students in Elizabeth, New Jersey, were suspended for not saying the Pledge because the school board determined that the Black Muslims were not a religious group but were instead a racial and political group and as such were not eligible on religious grounds to refuse to say the Pledge. This case made it to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which ruled that the Black Muslims, whether a religious group or not, could abstain based on any “conscientious scruples.”
Teachers who refused to lead their classes in reciting the Pledge or refused to say the Pledge themselves while the class recited it came under particular scrutiny and punishment. Several teachers around the country were dismissed for these actions, but all were ultimately reinstated after courts reviewed the dynamics of the situations. For example in 1970, Susan Russo, a teacher in Henrietta, New York, did not have her contract renewed because she failed to recite the Pledge. (Several students and parents had complained to the school about her behavior.) Russo appealed to the courts to be reinstated. The first court agreed with the school and decided that Russo had failed to perform her required duties as a teacher and had been rightfully dismissed. Russo appealed to a federal court, which decided in her favor, stating that there was no reason students should have more Constitutional rights than teachers. The school board appealed to the Supreme Court for a further decision. But the high court, with its power to pick and choose which cases to hear, refused to take the case, thereby leaving the lower court’s decision intact.
Despite these legal setbacks in mandatory participation in reciting the Pledge, the political position of those pursuing the demand that everyone say the Pledge remained the dominant popular position.
And in this period when it came to laws dealing with the Pledge, politicians knew and understood this power. Then—and now—once politicians get into positions of legislative power, they can publicly proclaim a popular position on the Pledge and enact laws that reflect that popular position. They can do this with impunity even though they have full knowledge that if the law was ever strictly enforced and then challenged in a court, it would very likely not stand up to legal scrutiny.
That, in a nutshell, is legislative politics.
And as nearly every politician has learned in the last hundred years: woe to those who oppose the popularity of the Pledge of Allegiance—and the laws that promote and protect it.
This unquestionable dictum seemed to evade Michael Dukakis, the Democratic candidate for president in the 1988 election. In 1977, while governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis made a decision about the use of the Pledge in his state that reverberated with such furious intensity during the 1988 campaign that many political observers claim it cost him the election. It all started when the Massachusetts state legislature passed a statute in 1977 replacing a 1935 state law about compulsory recitation of the Pledge in public schools. The new law strengthened and expanded the requirements of the earlier law. The 1935 law required teachers, under penalty of fine and possible dismissal from their jobs, to lead their students in the Pledge at least once a week. The new law made it mandatory for teachers to have their students recite the Pledge daily.
The political popularity of enacting this new law apparently blinded the legislators of 1977 to the events that followed the passage of their own 1935 law.
It was this very 1935 Massachusetts law that prompted the expulsion of Jehovah’s Witness Carelton Nicholls, Jr., from his school in Lynn, Massachusetts, which in turn sparked the inflammatory October 1935 radio address by Witness leader (and lawyer) “Judge” Rutherford, which then began the coordinated boycott of the Pledge by Witnesses across the country, leading ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court decision to declare compulsory Pledge compliance unconstitutional in the 1943 Barnette decision.
However, despite all the legal wrestling over the Nicholls case in Massachusetts, that particular case never made it to the U.S. Supreme Court to test the 1935 Massachusetts law specifically. (The Witnesses decided not to use the case as the one they focused on.) Since there was no further appeal on the Nicholls case, the 1937 ruling of the Massachusetts Supreme Court remained the law in the Bay State, even though it was not, technically, the law of the land. According to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, the Witnesses were wrong about the Pledge:
There is nothing in the salute or the Pledge of allegiance which constitutes an act of idolatry, or which approaches any religious observance. It does not in any reasonable sense hurt, molest, or restrain a human being in respect to “worshipping God.”
Therefore, when the Massachusetts legislature wanted to expand the law in 1977 there had been no further court test on the state’s 1935 law since the 1943 Supreme Court decision in the Barnette case.
But there was a little wrinkle in the Massachusetts law that would become a political bombshell for future presidential candidate Dukakis. The Massachusetts law made the Pledge compulsory for teachers. The Barnette decision called the compulsory nature unconstitutional for students and said nothing about teachers.
Assuming that a law directed toward teachers was immune to the Supreme Court decision directed to students, the Massachusetts legislature sent the bill on to Dukakis to approve—or to veto. The legislative politicians were then able to go back to their constituents with the proof of their patriotic action by expanding and strengthening the Pledge requirement.
Dukakis, perhaps recognizing that he was now on a political hot seat, turned the matter over to the Massachusetts Supreme Court and the state’s attorney general for advisory opinions on the constitutionality of the new law. Both the state’s supreme court and the attorney general’s office proclaimed it, after reviewing the new law in light of Barnette, unconstitutional.
Then, with this apparent bipartisan evidence in hand, Dukakis committed what turned out to be near (if not complete) political suicide: he vetoed the new Pledge law.
The veto was quickly overridden by the Massachusetts legislature and the law remains on the books today as originally written. It has never been tested in court, primarily because it has rarely, if ever, been enforced.
What might have been a minor event in the days of Michael Dukakis’s term as governor of Massachusetts turned into one of the most important issues of his 1988 presidential bid.
When George H. W. Bush’s Republican strategy team filtered through Dukakis’s past for weaknesses to present to the voters, this 1977 Pledge veto surfaced as a political hot button.
Bush used the veto action in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, saying: “Should public school teachers be required to lead our children in the Pledge of Allegiance? My opponent says no—but I say yes.” Then to emphasize the point he finished the speech by leading the crowd in reciting the Pledge.
Dukakis never recovered from this moment. Earlier in the election year, Dukakis led Bush in polls by as much as sixteen percentage points. But as the Republicans hammered the Pledge issue more and more, the issue stuck and delivered perhaps the deciding blow to Dukakis’s campaign. In one survey of Democrats in Ohio who originally supported Dukakis and then defected to Bush, 21 percent said they changed their minds because of the Pledge issue that Bush had raised.
To counter this attack, Dukakis tried to provide a defense of his Pledge decision based on constitutional law. Dukakis found, however, that few voters had the patience to follow his scholarly arguments when such arguments couldn’t fit on a bumper sticker like “Save the Pledge.”
The Bush use of the Pledge as a political weapon was undoubtedly the most dramatic and effective of all time. However, it wasn’t the first time it was used in a presidential campaign. In 1964, Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s campaign ran a powerful television commercial that featured images of a classroom of schoolchildren reciting the Pledge intercut with images of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivering his famous “We will bury you” speech of 1956. In that speech to a group of Western ambassadors visiting Moscow, Khrushchev stormed: “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.” (This oft-quoted line is, however, slightly mistranslated. The actual line was “We will dig you in.”) The message of the Goldwater commercial was clear. It would be better to have a nation “under God” than under Khrushchev.
In the Bush/Dukakis struggle, Dukakis actually made things worse for himself when he tried to turn the issue around and portray Bush as a president who would ignore constitutional rights. Answering that charge, Bush simply lashed Dukakis to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which, as a group, had backed and won Supreme Court cases that have often been largely unpopular among voting Americans—such as, the Pledge case of 1943. In addition, Bush also successfully painted Dukakis as a person who, as president, would likely attempt to appoint people to the Supreme Court predisposed to agreeing with the positions of groups like the ACLU, which, for many people, meant the destruction of beloved American traditions and national beliefs such as the Pledge.
While other factors contributed to Bush’s landslide victory over Dukakis, the Pledge issue was certainly one of the nails in Dukakis’s political coffin.
Even Congress was forced into the Pledge act that year when, on September 9, Congressman John G. Rowland (R.-Conn.) proposed changing House rules to make the Pledge a regular order of business. His motion was ruled out of order—and the ruling was upheld 226 to 168—but the following Tuesday, feeling the political pinch, in what The Washington Post said was “a departure from regular practice,” Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D.-Tex.) ordered the Pledge recited.
Said Wright after the vote, sounding defensive, “None of us objects to the Pledge of Allegiance; all of us embrace the Pledge of Allegiance. But I think it is very important that all of us recognize that the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag is something intended to unite us; not intended to divide us. I think all of us and each of us in his heart of hearts would subscribe to the belief that patriotism knows no political party. . . . And surely nothing would be more reprehensible than for any of us to suggest that another member or another citizen simply by reason of adhering to the principles of the other political party, was less patriotic than ourselves.
“Judge Learned Hand said it well,” Wright continued. “He said that ‘society is already in the process of dissolution where neighbors begin to view one another with suspicion or where nonconformity with accepted creed becomes a mark of disaffection.’ Let that not be the epitaph of this civilization.”
Such high-minded rhetoric did not prevent Michael Dukakis from fading into the mists of political history. Both George H. W. Bush, the forty-first president, as well as his son George W. Bush, our forty-third president, used the Pledge to great political advantage. But it was an awkward year for the Pledge. Humorist Calvin Trillin weighed in just a month before the 1988 election with a column in the left-leaning Nation that began with a girl at the breakfast table demanding, “Daddy, can you recite the Pledge of Allegiance?”
“What kind of cereal do you want this morning? We’re pushing this high-fiber stuff—although, as I understand the list of ingredients on the box, I think you could satisfy the same vitamin requirements by chewing on your pencil in math class.”
“Come on, Daddy. Just try one time.”
“Or you might want some of this kind that’s fortified with a couple of years’ supply of iron, unless you think it’ll weigh you down.”
“But aren’t people who recite the Pledge of Allegiance more patriotic than other people?”
Trillin makes fun of GOP vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle—infamous for avoiding the Vietnam draft by joining the National Guard and for issuing such malapropisms as “A mind is a terrible thing to lose”—by telling his daughter, “So Dan Quayle is more patriotic than the people who went to Vietnam.”
And what about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, his daughter asks. She had heard on the “television news” that there was no Pledge until 1892.
“Then they were unpatriotic,” said Daddy.
Daddy goes over the history of the Pledge, including the victorious Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Supreme Court case. But the daughter persists, asking again why people who recite the Pledge are more patriotic than those who don’t.
“As your mother said when I asked her if she knew the name of the Secretary of Labor, I won’t stand here and be grilled like a common criminal. . . . I think history might have taken a different turn if Benjamin Franklin had known about riboflavin.”
All this popular debate about the use and misuse of the Pledge didn’t prevent a new legal challenge to the nation’s sacred creed—in fact, it probably contributed to it: a test dipping back to the Eisenhower-era change to the Pledge.
The many direct (and ineffective) objections over the decades to the “under God” addition to the Pledge focused on First Amendment rights separating church and state. Eisenhower’s Reverend Docherty made a specific point by insisting that the original idea behind the First Amendment was simply to guard against a government-dictated official church—such as the Church of England—and did not mean to remove religion from government sanction. A more commonly accepted interpretation of the First Amendment, however, has been a more strict separation of church and state, and increasingly over the years it has been this argument that has achieved court success; for example, for removing public prayer from schools, forbidding displays of Ten Commandment posters and nativity scenes in public places, and banning prayer in school but allowing observance of moments of silence.
In the early years of challenge to the addition of “under God” to the Pledge, groups such as Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists, secularists, and, of course, atheists found one objection or another to being forced to acknowledge in reciting the Pledge to acknowledge one God, a specificversion of God, or any God.
There were also some objections from ardently religious groups. For example, one interfaith group of religious scholars argued that “under God,” when uttered in a rote recitation of the Pledge, made God into a generic concept that “lead to a trivialization of faith.” Another group argued that if “under God” had become so religiously unimportant when saying the Pledge, then it actually ended up asking students “to take the name of the Lord in vain,” which violated one of the Ten Commandments.
Very few people in the vast majority of Americans who support the Pledge in every aspect of its current form have spent much time thinking about the multiplicity of layers of interpretation from one end of the faith spectrum to the other. And that’s the political challenge that the courts have tried to dodge since people have attempted to get “under God” judicially defined since the phrase was adopted in 1954.
Several cases worked their way through the court system only to be turned back at the Supreme Court level with the Court’s power to pick and choose exactly which cases it will hear.
It wasn’t until an unusual situation forced the Supreme Court’s hand in 2004 to hear the arguments on both sides.
*An exception was Congressman Kenneth Keating (R.-N.Y.), who objected to the change because it would damage a “work of American literature.” But he was representing his constituent David Bellamy, who did not want his father’s pledge changed again.