Isaac Kramnick — ‘Under God’ marries religion to citizenship

This is the speech, edited for space, given by Isaac Kramnick at FFRF’s national convention in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 18, 2019. (Sadly, Kramnick died at age 81, on Dec. 21, just two months after giving this talk.) He was introduced by FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott:

Isaac Kramnick is the Richard J. Schwartz Professor of Government, Emeritus, at Cornell, where he has taught since 1972. Prior to coming to Cornell, he had taught at Harvard, Brandeis and Yale. He is from rural Massachusetts and was educated at Harvard and Cambridge University. He has taught and written principally an area of English and American political thought and history. He has written or edited some 20 books.

By Isaac Kramnick

Every morning at most American public schools, the day begins with students participating in a teacher-led Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. That pledge, of course, involves God: “I pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

The pledge was written in 1892 as part of a public relations campaign, run by a respected and popular Boston-based magazine, Youth’s Companion. The magazine had launched a national initiative in the late 1880s to “have a flag fly over every schoolhouse in America.” Offering sales of flags with a printed order form, the periodical campaigned in 1892 to have 13 million schoolchildren participate in that October’s national celebration of the 400th anniversary of the so-called discovery of America in 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue. How better to sell flags to schools than to have the Youth’s Companion invent a pledge to the flag that could be recited in every schoolhouse?

The author of this pledge was Francis Bellamy, a cousin of the famous socialist writer and activist Edward Bellamy, who had written the bestselling utopian novel Looking Backward in 1889. The pledge that Francis Bellamy wrote to help sell flags in 1892 made no reference to God, nor even to the United States. His pledge, published in the Youth’s Companion on Sept. 4, 1892, was: “I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Washington state in 1919 became the first state to require the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools. By the 1950s, reciting Bellamy’s pledge had become a morning ritual in most American public schools, with the pledge to “my flag” replaced officially by Congress in 1942 to the “flag of the United States of America.” But for that tiny change, Bellamy’s pledge remained as he wrote it until the 1950s, when “God” was added.

Religion, God embraced

As the Cold War developed, religion and God were publicly embraced. President Eisenhower initiated a prayer breakfast in the White House, and Congress created a prayer room in the Capitol. “In God We Trust” was made the nation’s official motto, replacing “E pluribus unum,” — one out of many — which, despite the civil war, had done fairly well for nearly 200 years.

“In God We Trust,” which had been placed on some currency during the Civil War, was placed on all American money in the 1950s. In such a Cold War political environment, the Catholic fraternal organization, the Knights of Columbus, well aware of the historical linkage of Bellamy’s pledge of allegiance to Columbus Day, proposed in 1951 during the Korean War to add the words “under God” between the words “nation” and “indivisible” in the pledge. In part because it was being pushed mainly by the Catholic organization, such a bill introduced in Congress in 1953 had little public support and was even publicly opposed by Bellamy’s son.

But in February 1954, one sermon, delivered before one important parishioner, married American patriotism to godliness. That month, George McPherson Docherty, the pastor of The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., which Eisenhower attended, delivered a sermon with the president sitting in front of him.

Docherty lamented that the Pledge of Allegiance could be the pledge of any country and that it needed “under God” added to it. He said, “I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer and sickle flag. The Soviets claim to be an individual republic, too.” The Cold War, Docherty insisted, was not about political beliefs, between Thomas Jefferson’s political democracy and Lenin’s communistic state, or about economic systems between Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.

Rather, he said, it is a theological war. It is a Judeo-Christian civilization in mortal combat against modern secularized godless society. Docherty’s sermon ended with his ringing call for Eisenhower to help pass legislation adding “under God” to the pledge.

And Eisenhower did. By June 1954, four months later, the law had passed Congress and was signed by the president. On June 14, 1954, Flag Day, the president signed the legislation. For nearly 50 years after 1954, “God” sat comfortably in the Pledge of Allegiance — until the year 2000 and the historical intervention of one man named Michael Newdow.

Newdow’s court battle

Newdow was a graduate of Brown University, UCLA Medical School and the University of Michigan Law School. Newdow, who practiced law and also worked as an emergency room physician in Sacramento, Calif., filed a federal lawsuit in March 2000, claiming that the teacher-led daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance with the phrase “one nation, under God” harmed his daughter, a student at Elk Grove Elementary School in California. He argued that the state-run ritual proclaimed the existence of God and was an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition of an establishment of religion, which courts have regularly interpreted to mean “a prohibition of state sponsorship or endorsement of religion.”

Newdow and the mother of his daughter had never married and were not living together. The girl’s mother described herself as a born-again Christian. Newdow was himself a Jewish atheist. At the time of the suit, the child’s mother had sole custody of the daughter. The district court dismissed Newdow’s case in 2001. He then appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The 9th Circuit Court is, as some of you may know, the nation’s most liberal circuit court. In June 2002, to the nation’s amazement, a panel of the appeals court ruled two to one that it was indeed an unconstitutional sponsorship of religion, a violation of the First Amendment for public schools and Elk Grove to ask students to recite “under God” as part of the Pledge of Allegiance.

As soon as the ruling was publicized, every politician in America raced to appear on television to denounce it. President Bush called the decision “ridiculous” and that it reinforced his resolve to appoint “common-sense judges who understand that our rights are derived from God.”

Sen. John Kerry, soon to be the Democratic candidate for president, said that holding “‘under God’ in the pledge unconstitutional was half-assed justice, the most absurd thing. That’s not an establishment of religion.”

Almost immediately, the Elk Grove School Board, supported by the Bush administration, took the case to the United States Supreme Court. Judge Alfred Goodwin, a Republican appointed to the 9th Circuit Court in 1971 by President Nixon, and known to his friends as Tex, the very next day postponed any implementation of his ruling until the Supreme Court heard the case. The U.S. Senate quickly passed legislation reaffirming the words “under God” by a vote of 99 to 0. And the House of Representatives did the same by a vote of 416 to 3.

Political firestorm

Judge Goodwin’s ruling, joined by Judge Stephen Reinhardt, was eclipsed by the ensuing political firestorm. Goodwin strongly sided with Newdow, who had argued his own case that the words “under God” had a religious, not a secular purpose. “To say the United States,” Goodwin writes, “is a nation ‘under God’ is a profession of a religious belief, namely a belief in monotheism, and therefore was an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.” The dissenting judge, Ferdinand Fernandez, appointed to the court by George H.W. Bush, offered what he described as judicial good sense, a worrisome warning that “to rule against ‘God’ in the pledge allows atheists like Newdow to put America on the slippery slope that would end by evicting religion from the American way of life and the triumph of religion itself.” Those are his words.

When the appeal reached the Supreme Court on March 21, 2004, Newdow, a lawyer, again argued his own case. However, the justices never ruled on Newdow’s claim that “under God” was an unconstitutional establishment of religion. On June 14, 2004, Flag Day again, exactly 50 years to the day after President Eisenhower had signed the legislation putting God into the pledge, the Supreme Court preserved God’s place in it with a unanimous decision, which held that Newdow had no standing. The court made no elaborate argument. It made a procedural distinction, saying that it would not decide the case.

Newdow had no standing. He was not married to his daughter’s mother, who had custody of the child and, who, according to her lawyer, was giving her daughter a religious upbringing and wants her to say the pledge with “under God.”

“God” was safe in the pledge and is to this day. But there is yet another chapter with Newdow’s crusade. The indefatigable Newdow was not silenced. In September 2005, he brought a new case on behalf of himself and three other unnamed parents and their children in the nearby Rio Linda Union School District, which is in the same California district court he had tried in 2000. The district court judge in January 2006 again ruled in Newdow’s favor, holding that the pledge’s “under God” violated the First Amendment. He stayed the carrying out of his ruling pending an appeal by the Rio Linda School Board.

The case was indeed appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals again, with arguments heard on Dec. 4, 2007. It took more than two years, until March 2010, for the 9th Circuit Court panel to make a decision. Exactly 10 years after Newdow brought the first and the ill-fated suit on behalf of his daughter, the 9th Circuit Court panel finally and definitively resolved the legal status of the phrase “under God” in the pledge. It decided that the two words were not state sponsorship of religion, thus overturning the 2006 ruling of the district court judge.

‘Patriotic, not religious’

The court’s 58-page ruling was written by Justice Carlos T. Bea, a 2003 George Bush appointee. He was joined in the majority by Justice Dorothy Nelson, who was appointed to the appeals court by President Carter. The pledge Bea wrote was “of allegiance to our republic, not of allegiance to God or to any religion. Congress’s purpose in 1954 in adding ‘God’ to the pledge was patriotic, not religious.” Bea held that adding the words had a secular, political purpose and did not endorse, favor or promote religion, did not endorse one religion over another, nor did it coerce students into participating in a religious exercise. Bea held quite absurdly that “under God” in the pledge had no religious significance, but was merely a secular political statement. “It is not a prayer, but patriotism.”

It was added to the pledge in 1954, he wrote quite erroneously, to make the political point that America has a limited government, unlike the Soviets all-powerful government division of the Cold War that provided for and dominated the people. It represented the American political belief that government was not supreme, but that a power greater than government, God, gave the American people their rights. Students reciting “one nation, under God” are thus referring to the historical traditions of America, not making a personal affirmation through prayer or invocation that the speaker believes in God or that God even exists. The court went on to insist that citing God in the pledge is merely rhetorical, stylistic and ceremonial. “Under God” in the pledge, as the court concluded in 2010, “is unrelated to religious belief.” That’s a quote from the decision.

To all of this, the single dissenting circuit court justice responded: “Pure poppycock.” Stephen Reinhardt, who had sided with Goodwin in the original Newdow case, was the sole dissenter, the one vote against the two. (He died about six months ago.) He had been appointed to the court by President Carter. Reinhardt argued that the two words were, in fact, “for the purpose of indoctrinating public school children with a religious belief that God exists.”

The 9th Circuit majority ruling saw it otherwise. “Under God” in the pledge was not an unconstitutional endorsement of religion because the reference to God is understood to be religiously meaningless, stripped of spiritual significance. God is secularized and performs political patriotic and ceremonial purpose. Citing God has nothing to do with religion.

‘God’ a nonreligious term?

No surprise then that many religious figures, while approving of the panel’s majority ruling, were critical of Bea’s argument about the pledge’s lack of religious content, his relegation of God to be a nonreligious term. Father Richard John Newhouse, the respected founder of the religious journal First Things, announced “Most Americans agree with Mr. Newdow that a reference to God is a reference to God, the government’s brief notwithstanding. Have we come to the point when references to God in public are permissible because nobody really believes what they say?” He, of course, approved of the decision of the court, he just disagreed with its argument.

Similarly, in the recent court case with a 40-foot cross in Maryland, Larry [Moore] and I just had an article in The Hill, which pointed out that to say that a 40-foot cross is not really a cross, but a symbol of war dead, is, of course, to be a gross insult to religious people for whom a cross is a cross and a central issue in the Christian faith. Those like Bea, for whom the post-1954 pledge has a predominantly patriotic purpose, and those like Newdow, Reinhardt and Father Newhouse, for whom it has an indisputably religious purpose, are all correct.

What the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did in 2010 was codify and legitimize the intimate linkage of Americanism and religiosity, which had been a drumbeat since the Cold War. Changing the pledge in 1954 was an establishment and sponsorship of religion because it marries religion to citizenship. Being religious, believing in God, is declared in the pledge to be central to what it means to be an American, and becomes a litmus test for citizenship. It is the core of an American civil religion, a merging of the political and the spiritual. The court is saying to be an American, one must be a believer, affirming a religious identity is here taken as a sign of being a good American.

Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is, as many of you know, the last ritualized act in the naturalization ceremony for new citizens, which makes it clear that affirming loyalty to America requires asserting a belief in God, even if God is so allied with the United States that the courts could see God as a secular figure. I repeat, it signifies that what defines an American is being a believer and that nonbelievers are unwelcome in the American political community.

Newdow’s decade-long atheist crusade against “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance had produced an unintended consequence: The judicial doctrine of civil religion, the assumption that one has to be religious, i.e., believing in God, to be a good American. This linkage is assumed in the courts even as, paradoxically, they insist that they are not affirming or establishing a religion. And even more paradoxically, as the number of self-proclaimed nonbelieving Americans grows dramatically.

Now, I have to end this rather sad story of where the Pledge of Allegiance is today, with a bit of comic relief. The late iconoclastic comedian Robin Williams, like millions of nonbelievers and like many in this room, remained unpersuaded about America’s dependence on divine guidance. If he could, he would tell audiences that he would yet again rewrite the Pledge of Allegiance, this time with less attention to religion, and more to geography. And so, he would, often in his appearances, offer a new pledge of allegiance.

“I pledge allegiance, to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic, for which it stands, one nation, under Canada and above Mexico, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” Thank you.

Freedom From Religion Foundation