When Patriotism Wasn't Religious
July 7, 2002
by Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
The word "God" does not appear in the Constitution of the United States, a document that erects if not quite a wall, at least a fence between church and state. "In God We Trust" began to appear on American coins in the 19th century, but in the early 20th century President Theodore Roosevelt, having asked the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to design new coinage, was relieved to find no statute mandating "In God We Trust" on coins.
"As the custom, altho without legal warrant, had grown up," T. R. wrote to a clergyman distressed over the prospect of godless coins, "I might have felt at liberty to keep the inscription had I approved of its being on the coinage. But as I did not approve of it, I did not direct that it should again be put on."
T. R. expressed his "very firm conviction that to put such a motto on coins . . . not only does no good but does positive harm." His objection to "In God We Trust" was not constitutional; it was aesthetic. He felt that the motto cheapened and trivialized the trust in God it was intended to promote. "In all my life I have never heard any human being speak reverently of this motto on the coins or show any sign of its having appealed to any high emotion in him," he wrote. Indeed, he added, "the existence of this motto on the coins was a constant source of jest and ridicule."
Congress, devoted then as now to religiosity, overruled T. R. and made the motto mandatory. A similar issue now arises from the decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that the insertion of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional.
The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a former Baptist minister, as part of the celebration of the 400th anniversary of what our politically incorrect ancestors called Columbus's "discovery" of America. Bellamy was a Christian socialist dedicated to the ideal of a cooperative commonwealth. His unpopular socialist critique of capitalism from the pulpit forced his resignation from the ministry. Soon afterward he joined the staff of The Youth's Companion, the once-famous children's magazine, which printed his Pledge of Allegiance on Sept. 8, 1892.
Francis Bellamy said on Flag Day in 1931, a short time before his death, that the pledge was "born out of my own love of the flag and for all the lofty Americanism it represented." Two alterations have been made in Bellamy's text. In 1924 "my flag" became "the flag of the United States of America." And in 1954 Congress changed "one nation indivisible" into "one nation under God, indivisible."
This second change came about in order to emphasize the antagonism between God-fearing Americans and godless Communists, as if that antagonism needed reinforcement in the age of Joe McCarthy. "From this day forward," President Dwight D. Eisenhower said in signing the law, "the millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim . . . the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty." T. R.'s objection to the cheapening of religious avowals had long since been forgotten. (Eisenhower also said, "Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply held religious belief - and I don't care what it is.")
Bellamy "would have objected strongly to this change, as it changed the fundamental meaning," according to his granddaughter, Barbara Bellamy Wright. "He had considered that `One nation, indivisible' conveyed the deep meaning that after the Civil War our nation could not be divided," she said, and the reference to God "tampered with the original meaning of the pledge as well as spoiling its rhythmic cadence."
Yet a hysterical clamor has risen against the Ninth Circuit decision and in favor of returning the pledge to the original text - a text that Americans found quite satisfactory for nearly two-thirds of a century. The "under God" addition, by identifying patriotism with religion, excludes agnostics, atheists and all believers in some deity or deities other than the Christian God. Nor does the "under God" addition meet Theodore Roosevelt's test of promoting reverence and appealing to high emotions. Doubtless all the crooks in the corporate community have recited the pledge without notably improving their conduct.
As for the Constitution, more than a half-century ago the Supreme Court, in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, declared unconstitutional a law requiring schoolchildren to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation," Justice Robert H. Jackson memorably said for the court, "it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion."
The court handed down its decision against compulsory pledges of allegiance and flag salutes on Flag Day in 1943, when young Americans were fighting and dying for that flag around the planet. The American people then, far from denouncing the court, applauded the decision as a pretty good statement of what we were fighting for. Are we backsliding today? Perhaps the next step for those who identify patriotism with religion will be to try to amend the Constitution itself by mentioning God.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is the author, most recently, of ``A Life in the 20th Century.''