Under God mourns the loss of the minister who persuaded President Eisenhower and Congress in 1954 to insert into the Pledge of Allegiance the phrase “under God” — an idea whose time was then.
Now, with the passing of the Rev. George M. Docherty, who died Thanksgiving Day at the age of 97, let us review why the phrase was added in the first place and why we should consider updating the pledge.
Docherty’s contribution to American civil religion came during a sermon he preached at Washington’s New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in honor of Lincoln’s birthday in 1954, the height of the Second Red Scare. As Post reporter Matt Shudel notes in Sunday’s obituary, Docherty, a native of Scotland, argued that the then-godless American pledge could just as easily apply to the communist Soviet Union.
“I could hear little Muscovites recite a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag with equal solemnity,” said Docherty. He suggested adding Lincoln’s phrase “under God” from the Gettysburg Address to the pledge. “To omit the words ‘Under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance is to omit the definitive character of the American Way of Life.”
Maybe then. Not now.
First, it isn’t the 1950s anymore. As religion scholar Will Herberg noted in his influential 1955 essay “Protestant-Catholic-Jew,” at that time 68 percent of Americans were Protestant, 23 percent Catholic, and 4 percent Jewish. (The remaining 5 percent expressed no religious preference.) “Not to be a Catholic, a Protestant, or a Jew today is, for increasing numbers of American people, not to be anything.”
According to a recent Pew report, those figures have declined to 51, 23 and 2. The remaining 20+ percent express plenty of preferences, including Mormon, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist and Agnostic. Not to be a Catholic, a Protestant, or a Jew today is, for increasing numbers of American people, to be something else just as worthy of citizenship.
Second, the greatest threat to American freedom is no longer godless communism but “godly” terrorism — people who pledge their allegiance to God. Docherty noted that even Stalin’s Soviet Union could claim to be “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Today, even a Taliban-led Afghanistan could claim to be “one nation, under God.”
In his 1954 sermon, Docherty argued that Judeo-Christian America was engaged in “mortal combat against modern, secularized, godless humanity.” Today, pluralistic America is engaged in mortal combat against anti-modern, fundamentalist, religionized humanity.
It isn’t our belief in God that makes us different. It’s our belief in the liberties (religious and other) enshrined in the Constitution. The American creed is faith in liberty for all, not the religion of most.