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‘Under God’: Our American Legacy

6/1/2014

Justin Bell

Past Supreme Knight Hart leads delegates and visitors in the Pledge of Allegiance during the August 1955 Supreme Convention in Philadelphia. (Knights of Columbus Multimedia Archives)

On a wintry morning, Jan. 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural presidential address in which he famously challenged his fellow Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

But much earlier in the oration, President Kennedy, a Fourth Degree Knight, drew attention to a theme that has been threaded throughout American history from the outset. In the second paragraph, he reminded the nation that “the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”

In other words, Kennedy underscored the idea of a nation “under God.” For most of us who grew up in the United States, we heard and said those words at the beginning of every school day.

June marks the 60th anniversary of the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. And the Knights of Columbus, who played a pivotal role in the addition of those two words, continue today to defend and preserve them from forces that seek to remove them.

Less than three days before Kennedy’s iconic speech, his predecessor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, had likewise expressed the primacy of God over government in his presidential farewell address: “You and I, my fellow citizens, need to be strong in our faith that all nations, under God, will reach the goal of peace with justice.”

Eisenhower was fond of the phrase “under God,” for on Flag Day, June 14, 1954, he signed into law a resolution passed by Congress that amended the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. Later that year, he wrote a letter to the Order thanking the Knights for their efforts in this change.

ORIGINS OF “UNDER GOD”

Unlike Kennedy’s inaugural address and Eisenhower’s farewell address, there are no YouTube videos of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address on Nov. 19, 1863. If there were, it would be very interesting to hear Lincoln say “under God,” a seemingly spontaneous addition which is often cited as the major inspiration for the change in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Thomas J. Malone, writing in the September 1952 issue of Columbia, noted that Lincoln had not originally included “under God” in his written drafts of the speech, but spoke the words during the oration and then preserved the phrase in subsequent copies of what became his most famous speech.

Known as the “Bliss Copy” of the Gettysburg Address — the only manuscript Lincoln signed after delivering the actual address — he concludes his message this way: “… we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that 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.”

Of course, the Declaration of the Independence was signed four score and seven years prior. In 1776, this foundational document declared that human rights ultimately derive from God and not from governments:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Attorney Eric Rassbach from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has helped to defend the constitutionality of the words “under God,” pointed out that the roots of these principles stretch back even further. He noted that at the Harvard Law School Library one can find the prominently placed Latin phrase NON SVB HOMINE SED SVB DEO ET LEGE, which means, “Not under man, but under God and the law.”

Past Supreme Knight Luke E. Hart presents President John F. Kennedy, a fellow Knight of Columbus, with a framed copy of the Pledge of Allegiance Oct. 11, 1961. (Knights of Columbus Multimedia Archives)

Etched in stone above the entrance, the phrase can be traced back to the earliest known compendium of English law, compiled in the 13th century.

VICTORY IN ’54

The original Pledge of Allegiance was written in August 1892 by the Baptist minister Francis Bellamy. Published the next month and recited in schools on Columbus Day, this Pledge initially did not contain a reference to God.

In 1942, Congress officially recognized the U.S. Pledge, which had undergone some wording changes over the years, but still omitted a reference to God. Louis A. Bowman, an attorney from Illinois, is known for first adding the words “under God” to the Pledge at a meeting of the Illinois Society of the Sons of the American Revolution six years later, in February 1948.

In New York City in April 1951, the Knights of Columbus Board of Directors voted to amend the recitation of the Pledge at all Fourth Degree assembly meetings in the United States by adding “under God” after the words “one nation.”

In August 1952, the Supreme Council created a resolution that urged Congress to make this same addition. The Order sent copies of the resolution to the President, Vice President and the Speaker of the House. At the time, Supreme Knight Luke E. Hart was also president of the National Fraternal Congress of America, which adopted a similar resolution the following month.

One year later, the Supreme Council made a second appeal, but this time, also sent copies of the resolution to every member of the Senate and the House. In response to the generally positive feedback, Rep. Louis C. Rabaut of Michigan introduced one of 17 eventual congressional resolutions to officially add “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.

Significant support for the “under God” movement came on Feb. 7, 1954, when Rev. George M. Docherty, a Presbyterian minister, delivered a sermon. President Eisenhower was in attendance at the famous Washington, D.C., church that Lincoln had also attended.

“To omit the words ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance,” Docherty said, “is to omit the definitive character of the American way of life.”

Many years later, in a 2002 interview with the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Docherty recounted hearing the Pledge for the first time from his second grade son. Being a native of Scotland, Docherty did not grow up hearing it recited in school.

“It struck me that it didn’t mention God,” Docherty said.

REMAINING HUMBLE

On June 14, 1954, President Eisenhower signed the congressional resolution that amended the Pledge. On the same day, Supreme Knight Hart wrote a column for Columbia about the addition to the Pledge and underscored the Order’s recognition of its previous deficiency.

“Although it [recitation of the Pledge] had become an established feature in connection with the opening of assemblies of every kind and character, it remained for the Knights of Columbus to call attention to the fact that it contained no reference to God or to our dependence upon Him,” Hart wrote.

In a letter dated Aug. 6 of the same year, President Eisenhower formally thanked the Order: “And this year we are particularly thankful to you for your part in the movement to have the words ‘under God’ added to our Pledge of Allegiance. These words will remind Americans that despite our great physical strength we must remain humble. They will help us to keep constantly in our minds and hearts the spiritual and moral principles which alone give dignity to man, and upon which our way of life is founded.”

Pope John XXIII, now a saint, in a private audience with Supreme Knight Hart and other Knights on April 14, 1961, expressed gratitude for the Order’s efforts to have the words “under God” added to the Pledge. Hart recalled that the pope was delighted to hear that “some 30 million children, at the beginning of each school day, acknowledged the existence of God and their dependence upon Divine Providence.”

While the Order could celebrate its role in helping to add “under God” to the Pledge, its mission in preserving these words was just beginning.

A decade prior to the 1954 victory, the Supreme Court had overturned an earlier ruling that had required public school students to say the Pledge of Allegiance. This 1943 decision is significant in relation to later court cases having to do with the “under God” addition.

In 2000, Dr. Michael Newdow, a prominent atheist, sued the Elk Grove Unified School District in California where his daughter was a student. In 2002, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that both “the 1954 Act adding the words ‘under God’ to the Pledge” and the “policy and practice of teacher-led recitation of the Pledge” violate the First Amendment.

This ruling, however, did not go into effect pending appeal to the Supreme Court. The Knights of Columbus, through the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, submitted an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief to the Supreme Court about the constitutionality of “under God” in the Pledge.

In a statement, Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson underscored the Order’s dedication to God and country, in the past and in the future: “If necessary, once again the Knights will do all we can to see that the Pledge of Allegiance remains as is.”

EVER VIGILANT

The Supreme Court ultimately dismissed the lawsuit in 2004, citing that Newdow did not have custody of his daughter and therefore no legal standing.

However, in 2005, Newdow again tried to take on the Pledge in California and won in federal district court. But in March 2010, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed its earlier position and now ruled that “under God” was constitutional.

This decision was a victory for common sense, said Supreme Knight Anderson at the time. “Today, the court got it absolutely right: recitation of the Pledge is a patriotic exercise, not a religious prayer,” he said.

“Best of all,” Anderson continued, “the court said that the words ‘under God’ add a ‘note of importance which a Pledge to our Nation ought to have and which in our culture ceremonial references to God arouse.’”

In 2007 Newdow teamed with the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation to make yet another attempt, this time to stop optional recitation of the Pledge in the Hanover, N.H., public schools. They lost there, at the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court rejected the case in November 2011. The Order had again been allowed to serve as “defendant-intervenor” in the case and was represented by the Becket Fund.

In recent years, the American Humanist Association (AHA) filed lawsuits against school districts in Massachusetts and New Jersey — taking the case against “under God” in the Pledge to the state level, on the claim that its daily recitation in public schools goes against their state constitutions.

The Knights and those who favor the current Pledge were pleased to hear on May 9 that the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts turned down the latest attempt by the AHA to remove "under God." The AHA had lost their case in the lower court as well. As in previous cases, the Becket Fund represented interested families and the Knights of Columbus.

Roy Speckhardt, executive director of AHA, had said in a press release before the decision, “Patriotism has nothing to do with religion, but that’s the message Massachusetts is sending by mandating a daily, teacher-led, school-sponsored exercise that declares the nation to be ‘under God.’” The May 9 decision made the opposite claim: “Although the words 'under God' undeniably have a religious tinge, ... the pledge... is a fundamentally patriotic exercise, not a religious one.”

From the beginning, however, the Founding Fathers expressed their opinion that there is an integral relationship between religion and patriotism. In 1796, after two terms as the nation’s first president, George Washington offered these compelling observations in his Farewell Address:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. ... Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Thus, while the legal challenges will no doubt continue, the Knights and others who understand the significance of the words “under God” will be stalwart in their defense — a defense firmly grounded in American history.

JUSTIN BELL is a correspondent for the National Catholic Register, works for Boston Public Schools and at St. Mary of the Annunciation Parish in Danvers, Mass. He is a member of Denver Council 539.