‘Under God’: The Little Known History Of The Pledge Of Allegiance’s Most Controversial Clause

“One nation, under God” seems like a near-indispensable part of the Pledge of Allegiance, a phrase that’s just about automatic for most Americans when they think of the Pledge. But the phrase “under god” wasn’t always part of the Pledge, and that little historical fact has spawned a wealth of lawsuits that could fundamentally change that daily recitation.

The Pledge of Allegiance is one of those facets of American life that sometimes appears odd to foreigners. Most other countries don’t have a correlative pledge, or at least not one that’s said as regularly as American schoolchildren say the Pledge of Allegiance. For many Americans, the Pledge seems as “indivisible” as the country it refers to, but the Pledge hasn’t always existed in the form that we know.

francis bellamy under god
Francis Bellamy penned the original Pledge of Allegiance, and there was no mention of "under God" in its text.

The Pledge was originally composed in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Christian socialist minister and author. Bellamy’s Pledge was initially disseminated as part of a campaign by the Youth’s Companion, a publication aimed at increasing patriotism among American youth of the day, and it was shorter than the one you might recognize.

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one Nation, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.”

The Pledge was publicized nationally through an official program of the National Public School Celebration of Columbus Day in October of 1892, but it didn’t become a required recitation until the state of New York passed the first statute calling for such in 1898. Even then, the Pledge wasn’t the only possible patriotic pledge; Bellamy’s version was but one of five possibilities for New York schoolchildren.

In 1923, Bellamy’s Pledge of Allegiance was added to the United States Flag Code with one edit that pulled it closer to the Pledge that we know today. The opening was amended to read “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States.” Still, “under God” wasn’t yet part of the canon Pledge.

From there, the Pledge simply grew in prominence. In June of 1940, the Supreme Court ruled in Minersville School District v. Gobitis that students could be expelled for a refusal to recite the Pledge. That decision was reversed three years later in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, but the Pledge’s place in American daily life was all but cemented, evidenced by the fact that, two years later, the U.S. Flag Code became the law of the land.

The resolution that made the Flag Code into law initially called for the flag salute to “be rendered by standing with the right hand over the heart; extending the right hand, palm upward, toward the flag at the words ‘to the flag,'” and called for saluters to hold this position until the end of the Pledge. In practice, the gesture wound up looking like this.

schoolchildren salute flag under god
Schoolchildren salute the flag. Yeah, this salute didn't stay standard for long.

Of course, the rise of Hitler’s Nazi Germany made that salute a bit awkward. Later in 1942, Congress amended the Flag Code, changing the salute to the “right hand over the heart” stance that we know today.

So where does “under God” come into the picture? In 1948, an attorney from Illinois added “under God” to the Pledge as an homage to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. In the address, Lincoln hailed the battle’s fallen, noting that they had given “the last full measure of devotion… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

The “under God” clause didn’t get traction as a part of the Pledge until the Knights of Columbus began adding it in 1951, some 60 years after the Pledge was originally penned and nearly a decade after it had become the law of the land. From there, “under God” spread across the nation’s Knights of Columbus chapters, and a campaign began to push Congress to make “under God” an official part of the Pledge.

The reasoning? “Under God,” its proponents argued, signaled that the true strength of America came not from its arms, its people, or its resources. Instead, the United States was a singular nation, one chosen by God to work His will on Earth.

eisenhower pledge of allegiance under god
You can thank Eisenhower for signing the "under God" clause into law.

On Flag Day, June 14, 1954, President Eisenhower signed into law a bill passed by Congress that enshrined “under God” as an official part of the Pledge.

“From this day forward,” Eisenhower said of the addition of “under God,” “the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.”

The addition of “under God” wasn’t just a move to make sure that everybody in America knew from whence came their strength as a nation. It was also aimed at differentiating America from the atheistic Communist nations. It was the Cold War, after all.

Contrary to what you might think, opposition to “under God” isn’t just a phenomenon of the last few years. By 1963, there was already a Supreme Court case challenging the right of the state to force schoolchildren to recite the “under God” portion. The Court ruled 8-1 in Abington v. Schempp that the “reference to divinity… may merely recognize the historical fact that our Nation was believed to have been founded ‘under God.'”

“Under God” has been the source of no small amount of controversy ever since. The last decade or so has seen numerous Circuit and Supreme Court cases regarding the constitutionality of the “under God” clause. Now, the New Jersey Superior Court is preparing to rule whether or not “under God” is discriminatory against atheists.

The possibility that “under God” could be excised from the Pledge has, of course, brought out defenders of the clause. They argue that the anti- “under God” movement is just another in a long line of anti-American movements aimed at undercutting the traditional foundations of the country, like the War on Christmas or same-sex marriage.

Of course, “under God” isn’t as traditional and foundational as those proponents might think, being that it was only added to the Pledge in the 1950s. In fact, the Pledge itself may not be as foundational as some might believe. It was, after all, only penned in the 1890s, more than 100 years after the nation was founded.

[Lead image via The Blaze]