By T. Jeremy Gunn
Senior Fellow, Center for the Study of Law and Religion
n 1954, when signing the law adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, President Eisenhower declared that it would be a “spiritual weapon” against our atheistic foe. While Americans are familiar with government-sponsored declarations about God, they often do not realize just how many of them were promoted as “weapons” during the Cold War.
A series of laws instructing the president to declare “national days of prayer” began shortly after President Truman’s “scare the hell out of them” speech in March 1947. The first Presidential Prayer Breakfast convened in 1953. God was added to the Pledge in 1954. Stone monuments of the Ten Commandments were first promoted by Cecil B. DeMille in 1955 to coincide with the release of his new movie “The Ten Commandments” – which begins with his personal denunciation of communism. Congress constructed a Prayer Room in the Capitol in 1955. Laws requiring “In God We Trust” be placed on our money and in our motto were added in 1955 and 1956.
While our dollars declared that we trusted in God, they were increasingly spent on military hardware. We praised the Lord, but we purchased the ammunition.
Of course there is nothing entirely new under the sun. The Continental Congress hired a chaplain – who ultimately proved to be more loyal to King George III than to General George Washington. That Congress also declared days of fasting, humiliation, and prayer in support of the revolutionary war. (Fasting and humiliation were apparently unfashionable by the 1950s.) During the Constitution’s first 50 years, three presidents issued a total of six prayer proclamations. The last of the three, President Madison, later conceded that his two wartime declarations were unconstitutional. Thanksgiving Day proclamations were re-started by President Lincoln during the Civil War at the same time that “In God We Trust” was first placed on a coin.
Should we be comforted or alarmed that invocations to God are so often associated with war?
Of course individual American citizens are free to declare their belief in God – a freedom guaranteed in the Constitution. But why the need, so apparent since 1947, to insist that the government issue such declarations? And why that selfish qualification that God bless America?
Our original Constitution of “enumerated powers” did not grant any branch of government the power to make theological judgments. The Constitution instead prohibited any “religious test” for public office (Article VI), thereby rejecting the practice of all but two of the original thirteen states and virtually every European country. When the First Congress added an amendment concerning religion in 1789, it did not grant any new religious powers to government, but underscored instead that Congress should make “no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
What the original Constitution seemed to exclude, the 1950s exuded. Politicians tripped over each other as they rushed to promote piety against atheism.
But were such pronouncements principally for show?
In their public statements in 1955, politicians declared the importance of placing “In God We Trust” on paper money as a warning to our enemies. Yet in the Senate Banking Committee’s executive session on June 27, 1955, Chairman Fulbright described the proposed law as “a minor bill” and expressed his intention “to get rid of it before we get to the Defense Production Act.”
In 2002, after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that “under God” in the Pledge was unconstitutional, senators and members of congress rushed to their chambers to attack the decision. Senate Majority Leader Daschle described it as “nuts” and Senator Byrd announced that the judges should be “blackballed.” Senator Hillary Clinton declared that she was “personally offended” by the court’s decision.
And that was just the Democrats.
So – how many Republicans imagine that Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton recited the Pledge together in the White House when no one was looking?
And how many Senators recite the Pledge with their own children during summer vacations when no one is looking?
Are towns with Ten Commandments monuments more likely “to keep the Sabbath day holy” or to cheer their team in a hard-hitting football game?
Is God our “spiritual weapon” – or our political cover?
Dr. T. Jeremy Gunn, author of “Spiritual Weapons: The Cold War and the Forging of an American National Religion,” is the Senior Fellow for Religion and Human Rights at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University School of Law. He is a member of the Advisory Council on Freedom of Religion and Belief of the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Read an excerpt from “Spiritual Weapons.”