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According to the US Political Power, God Is On Its Side

The Battle for US Identity

Every morning, US school children recite a pledge of allegiance to the flag that speaks of the dedication of their country to God. Last June, the Supreme Court rejected a complaint seeking to declare unconstitutional that reference. Cedric Housez, a French specialist in political communication, analyzes this controversy that is the result of a long process of Christianization of the US identity; first, they did it in front of the “atheistic Communism” and now they do it in front of Islam

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Vice President Cheney and the Speaker of the House of Representatives take their 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 God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.”

By decision of the Supreme Court, this is the text that the US school children Hill continue to recite every morning in their classrooms, standing, hand over the heart, before the flag.

It was foreseeable after Michael Newdow lost his case.

The Newdow Case

Last June 14th, the US Supreme Court rejected a complaint that demanded the elimination of “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. The Court dismissed case on a technicality but refused to analyze the core issue. According to the Court, it is only a family issue linked to the education of Michael Newdow’s daughter, who is not under the plaintiff’s custody. Judge Paul Stevens, on behalf of the majority of the magistrates declared that Mr. “Michael Newdow does not have proper legal standing to bring the case before a federal court” and that “there is a difference between the right of Mr. Newdow to communicate with his daughter and the right that his right to defend her daughter from the influences to which she is exposed at school”.

The Supreme Court said in its verdict that Michael Newdow, who does not live with the mother of his daughter, did not have legal authority to initiate legal action on behalf of his daughter in a field that has to do with educational and religious principles. This decision, which ignores the fact that Michael Newdow was not referring in his complaint to the education of his daughter but to the general principle of separation (of powers and/or influence) between the Church and the State, was made public on Flag Day [1] , that is, 50 years after the words “Under God” that Newdow denounced was added by Congress to the Pledge of Allegiance. It is hard to believe that such a coincidence may be just that.

This elusive answer did not satisfy Newdow who affirmed in an article published by the New York Times [2] that what the Court did was to resort to a technicality to avoid applying the law and to dodge its obligation to respect the First Amendment of the Constitution [3]. This opinion was shared by many observers who were wondering since the beginning what legal maneuver would the Supreme Court use to dismiss a process whose outcome was already taken for granted [4].

Thus, the Supreme Court gave a victory to the Christian movements that fought for keeping “Under God” and who used their influences in the highest levels to maintain it after it was declared unconstitutional by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals of California. These groups also had the support of an important part of the US population according to a survey carried out by Ipsos-Public Affairs that was published on March 24th, 2004, and which showed that 87% of the American people think the phrase should remain in the pledge. This result can easily be explained by the fact that school children have recited this pledge every day for the last 50 years.

It all began on June 26th, 2002, when Judge Goodwin, on behalf of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals of California, declared that «the pledge is, in its current form, an unacceptable endorsement of religion by the government since it sends a warning to the non-believers that they are not integrated, that they are not full members of the political community».

For Michael Newdow, an emergency room doctor, an activist freethinker and lawyer who personally assumed the defense of his case before justice, it was the continuation of a fight that began in Florida, in 1998, against references to God in US official texts.

The decision immediately triggered the rage of Christian groups and lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, and gave birth to the creation of web sites to protest the decision in the Internet. The following day, the Secretary of Justice, John Ashcroft [5], declared that “the Justice Department will defend the right of the children of our nation to pledge allegiance to the US flag” [6] and the Senate approved a text supporting “Under God” [7] .

In the meantime, Christian groups expressed themselves through singer Lee Greenwood [8], linked to Billy Graham and representative of a movement that also groups associations like the Christian Legal Society, the American Jewish Congress and the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights. These groups reversed Newdow’s argument and affirmed that the groups of freethinkers want to impose atheism in the United States [9].

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Michael Newdow

The attorney for the mother of Michael Newdow’s daughter was the attorney of the Clinton-Lewinski case, Puritan Kenneth Starr. Newdow even received death threats for his initiative and the support of associations of freethinkers in the United States and also of the Anti-Defamation League [10] and Buddhist groups, concerned over the Christian interpretation of the phrase “Under God” in the allegiance.

The War of the Symbols

For each of the rival groups, what is at stake is the definition of US identity.

The issue of the pledge of allegiance may seem trivial. The anthems and flags of a nation are often regarded as something colorless. However, these are elements that participate in the definition of a nation and, using the words of Gurvitch, the national symbols “include and exclude”.

The symbols or anthems have two roles: a social role, which allows different members of a group to identify themselves as elements of the same community; and a psycho-social role, as reference elements that remind the spectator of ideas or ideologies associated to them.

This psycho-social function has an individual nature but it is the result of social life and belonging to a group that has its own ideas and its own perception of history. Transforming the speech around the symbols of a community means to influence the ideology of those who identify themselves in those symbols and transforming the symbols - or the anthems - thus gives the possibility to determine, through them, who belongs or not to the community.

In the case of the United States, determining who is or not “American” is a capital matter when you know the importance of the notion of un-American in the different witch-hunts that took place in that country during the 20th century [11] .

The complaint filed by Michael Newdow tried to impose respect for the First Amendment of the Constitution and also the acceptance of the idea that atheists and freethinkers are full members of the national community, contrary to what stems from the presence of a reference to God in the pledge of allegiance.

Most of those who opposed it denied the relevance of this argument using sophisms and saying that there were not any problems since the atheists were not forced to recite the pledge. Professor Samuel Huntington, a theoretician of the clash of civilizations, was one of the few people who clearly rejected the arguments of Michael Newdow in an article published by the Wall Street Journal [12] .

For Huntington, the words “Under God” should be in the pledge of allegiance because the United States is a nation of religious people and above all, Christian. According to Huntington, Newdow is right: atheists do not belong to the American national community. Based on surveys, he even concludes that Americans are one of the most religious people in the “developed” world and that, historically, that is the way it has always been. As it is a religious nation, those who do not accept that characteristic, are only, in the best of cases, second-class citizens.

However, although it is undeniable that the United States is a country where, unlike other countries with similar standards of living, people are very religious, it is wrong to say that it is an unchanging historic constant. In 1910 and 1920, 43% of Americans said they were members of a church. In 2002, it was 65%. During the 20th century, there was a recuperation of the control of US democracy by religion, which is reflected in the different versions of the pledge of allegiance.

From the “Socialist” origins...

The pledge of allegiance has its origin in a text written by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy, who defined himself as a “Christian socialist”. In his pledge, he wanted to express the ideas of his nephew Edward Bellamy, author of successful socialist and Utopian novels such as Looking Backward (1888) or Equality (1897). Francis’s sermons and Edward’s novels reflect the same ideas: the construction of a society founded by the middle class upon a planned economy, and social, economic and political equality for all.

The pledge was published in the edition of September 1892 of The Youth’s Companion, a publication of Boston owned by Daniel Ford, of whom Francis Bellamy was a personal assistant after he was forced to leave his parish church due to the content of his sermons. Also in charge of participating in the organization of commemorations for the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the American continent, Francis Bellamy took the opportunity to organize rallies to honor the flag with the inclusion of the pledge of allegiance.

The original pledge read: “I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the Republic for which it stands: one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”.

Some authors thought that Bellamy wanted to mention equality adding it to liberty and justice for all but he was banned from doing so by the other members of the committee in charge of writing the text, who opposed equality between men and women and between white and black people. Reflecting the concerns of the Americans of that time, the pledge highlighted the unity of the nation as the memories of the civil war were still fresh.

The pledge again gained fame in the 1920s. In the face of an important wave of immigrants, the United States witnessed an intensification of the movements that demanded an “Americanization” of the people who arrived in their territory. One of these movements was the Ku Klux Klan.

In some states, school children were forced to recite the pledge of allegiance before the flag, but it was modified on June 14th, 1923 and - on the same day - in 1924 in the framework of Flag Day. The expression “my flag” was first changed into “the flag of the United States” and later into “the flag of the United States of America” [13].

The purpose of these changes was to avoid that the children of immigrants recited the pledge thinking of the flag of the countries of origin or, something that could be even worse at that first epoch of “red-hunt”, of the red flag of Communism or the black flag or anarchism. Bellamy expressed his disagreement but the pledge gained popularity and became an official anthem on June 22, 1942. However, the way to salute the flag was changed from extending one’s right arm - too much like the Nazi salute -to placing one’s hand over the heart, which was inspired by a Franco-Masonic ritual. At that time, the pledge of allegiance still had not religious reference but, in parallel with the first wave of anti-Communism and the rhetoric of Woodrow Wilson, a Christianizing speech was going to develop in the United States.

In 1931, at the time of the ruling of the Supreme Court about the case United States vs. Macintosh, the Court declared: “We are a Christian people”. However, the people were not really ready to accept the adaptation of the text to the religious reference until the epoch of the Cold War.

... To a text against “Atheistic Communism”

The 1950s are considered today in the United States as the “happy days” of American history; the parenthesis between World War II and the War of Viet Nam. However, it was the time of the War of Korea, of McCarthyism and the development of the industrial-military complex ended up worrying Eisenhower himself. It was also the period of the Christianization of the political speech.

Elected as president in 1952, Eisenhower, had a determining influence in this Christianization of the speech. He affirmed that «our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is». Referring to the old controversy about the intentions of the “founding fathers” of the US constitution as to religion, he said:

«Even if the free government were not originally based upon some form of deeply felt religious faith, then men should attempt to devise a religion that stresses the qualities of unselfishness, cooperation, and equality of men» [14] .

Eisenhower wanted his presidency to be a great crusade in favor of religion and unselfishness. This religious speech was accompanied by constant calls not to forget the Communist threat, abroad and at home. For him, however, the big difference between the United States and the Soviet Union was the belief in God.

With his speeches, Eisenhower managed to convince the population, which was terrorized by the Soviet nuclear threat - a threat that he himself recalls in each of his speeches -, that God was on the side of the United States and he did it using rhetorical forms from the Christian apocalyptic discourse.

With his speeches, Eisenhower only retakes a tendency that was developing since Harry Truman announced the end of the US nuclear monopoly, a tendency whose main preacher was Billy Graham. This charismatic preacher, that would later become the conscience director of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush Jr., then began to become famous thanks to his links with Randolph Hearst and Cecil B. De Mille [15] , who guaranteed his fame.

Then, Graham already gave passionate and apocalyptic speeches about the fight to death between the Christian North America and the atheistic communism [16], a reference that also appears in the discourse that made Joseph McCarthy famous.

At the same time, the Catholic Church developed a condemnation of Communism in similar terms. Actually, the Vatican had condemned this ideology since 1894 and the encyclical Nostis et Nobiscum, written a year after Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto. In 1949, Pius XII - who never excommunicated any Nazi, not even after the discovery of the extermination camps - excommunicated every Catholic who praised any Communist principle.

In the United States, in the early 1950s, Cardinal Francis Spellman supported McCarthy’s measures in the radio programs of the Knights of Columbus.

The Knights of Columbus group the Catholic bourgeoisie of different countries of North America.

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The emblem of the Knights of Columbus

Founded on October 2, 1881 by Father Michael J. McGivney with the faithful of Connecticut, this organization currently has 12,000 councils with 1.6 million members around the world. However, these figures have to be carefully analyzed as this organization was first conceived as a fund for the elder and the ill among the members of the catholic clergy and later became a life insurance for those Catholics who paid contributions to it.

The organization maintained its mutualist activity and the 1.6 members it has today are people who pay insurance but who do not have any influence within the organization and who do not necessarily profess its ideology. However, to be a Knight of Columbus and a member of the hierarchy of the organization it is necessary to be a member of the high Catholic bourgeoisie.

The leaders of the organization have always advocated a reactionary interpretation of the dogma. Currently, the Knights of Columbus use their funds to support the anti-abortion programs and the diplomatic actions of the Holy See, including their representation in the United Nations. In the 1950s, the Knights of Columbus played a decisive role in the Congress’ approval of “Under God”.

On April 22, 1951, the administration council of the Knights of Columbus adopted a resolution that amended the pledge of allegiance and added “Under God” to the pledge they recited before every meeting. Between April and May of 1952, the Knights of Columbus of Florida, South Dakota, New York and Michigan, adopted resolutions calling on the US Congress to officially change the pledge of allegiance and made petitions in that sense.

On August 22, the Supreme Council of the organization adopted this position and sent copies of the text to the president of the United States (still Harry Truman), to the Vice President, in his condition of President of the Senate, and to the Speaker of the House of Representatives. They did it again in August 1953 but on that occasion they sent copies to all Congress members. The campaign began to gain support among them.

On February 7, 1954, Eisenhower and his wife attended a Presbyterian temple in Washington following a recommendation from Billy Graham [17] when Reverend George M. Docherty was saying a sermon about the pledge of allegiance.

Docherty said: «What is missing is the characteristic and the element that define the American way of life. Except for the words “United States of America”, it could be the pledge of any republic. Actually, I imagine the children in Moscow repeating a similar pledge with the same passion. Russia is also a republic that claims to have defeated the tyranny of monarchy. Russia also calls itself indivisible». Thus, he concluded saying that although some American honest atheists could feel hurt, «an American Atheist is a terminological contradiction» [18] .

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George Docherty and Dwight Eisenhower

Docherty was also the minister of many congress people and, immediately, 17 proposals were introduced in Congress although it was Louis C. Rabaut - a Catholic -, Democrat Representative for the state of Michigan, who was the author of the first one.

The insertion of “Under God” was unanimously accepted in the Senate and in the House of Representatives. However, the Senate’s Sub Committee for constitutional amendments rejected a proposal by Ralph Flanders, Republican senator for Vermont, who asked for the US constitution and law to explicitly recognize the authority of Jesus Christ.

Eisenhower signed the decree modifying the pledge on June 14, 1954 - Flag Day - exactly 30 years after the previous modification of the text encouraged by the US extreme right. On August 17th, 1954, in a message to the Supreme Knight of the Order of the Knights of Columbus, Luke E. Hart, on the occasion of the meeting of the Supreme Council of the organization that took place in Louisville, Eisenhower credited the organization with reform.

In 1956, the phrase “In God We Trust”, already part of the US dollars, became the official motto of the United States. The US Protestant and catholic thus completed the diversion of the national symbols of the country and reinforced the link between American identity and religious belief.

A useful text in the “clash of civilizations”

The movements of freethinkers today question this change precisely in times when the Bush administration uses the same rhetorical arguments as the Eisenhower administration. Bush, like Eisenhower, exploits the image of a nation in danger that needs to have God as a reference before the proximity of the Apocalypses.

On February 17, 1955, Jewish theologian Hill Herberg affirmed that Eisenhower presented himself «not only as the political leader but also as the spiritual leader of the epoch» [19] , which could also be applied to George W. Bush, who takes every opportunity to exaggerate the threat against the United States and then resorts to the religious devotion of the Americans to recall the highest place that the United States has among the world’s nations.

At the end of his life, in his autobiography, Rev. George M. Docherty himself launched an alert about the excesses that could emerge from the association of the United States and God. Referring to the insertion of “Under God” in the pledge of allegiance, he wrote: «I still consider my reasoning to be valid, but the times should have overruled my philosophical arguments as irrelevant in light of the greater issues at hand. A false patriotism was being aroused by the bogus threat of Communist encroachment; McCarthyism darkened the airwaves; super-patriots were prone to ask not whether they were on God’s side, but whether God was on theirs. As such, the new Pledge unfortunately served as one more prop supporting the civil religion that characterized the institutional Christianity of the fifties» [20]

Today, not only the Bush administration says that it conducts its foreign policy according to the divine precepts and plans of God for the world [21] but also the very US democracy is questioned by those who say they speak in the name of God.

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On January 2, 2004, Rev. Pat Robertson declared that God would have George W. Bush win the presidential election because «God gave him His blessing. I mean, he can make terrible mistakes but he can get out of the situation. What he does, good or bad, it does not matter. God supports him because he is a pious man and he has God’s blessing» [22].

[1] «Pledging Allegiance to My Daughter», by Michael Newdow, New York Times, JUne 21, 2004. Topic analyzed in Tribunes Libres Internationales n° 373 on June 22, 2004

[2] «Pledging Allegiance to My Daughter», by Michael Newdow, New York Times, JUne 21, 2004. Topic analyzed in Tribunes Libres Internationales n° 373 on June 22, 2004

[3] This amendment stipulates that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances”

[4] “Atheist Presents Case for Taking God From Pledge”, byr Linda Greehouse, New York Times, March 24, 2004

[5] «John Ashcroft dans le secret des Dieux», Voltaire, February 2, 2004

[6] Quoted by CNN, «Gov’t to ask rehearing of Pledge ruling», June 27, 2002

[7] The only vote missing was that of reactionary senator Jessie Helms, who was then recovering from heart surgery

[8] American country singer whose song «God Bless the USA» is a classic in ceremonies in the United States

[9] Lee Greenwood declared in an interview for the web site of Billy Graham that: «The phrase “Under God” in the pledge of allegiance does not mean that everyone is Christian. It does not mean either that everyone believes in God. It means that this nation is protected by God»

[10] It had already opposed the groups of US fundamentalist Christians during the controversy around Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ”. «L’implosion de l’alliance judéo-chrétienne», Voltaire, February 23, 2004

[11] «Chasses aux sorcières, des communistes aux musulmans», by Paul Labarique, Voltaire, June 24, 2004

[12] “Under God”, by Samuel Huntington, Wall Street Journal, June 16, 2004. Analyzed in Tribunes Libres Internationales n°371, Voltaire, June 18, 2004

[13] Quoted by Pr. Ira Chernus “Eisenhower: Faith and Fear in the Fifties”

[14] Quoted by Pr. Ira Chernus “Eisenhower: Faith and Fear in the Fifties”

[15] Stephen Whitfield, “Praying: God Bless America”, in Cold War Culture, p. 77

[16] In 1953, he declared «Almost all propagandists of the Gospels and scholars of the Bible think that (Communism) is led by Satan himself», in Stephen Whitfield, op. cit,, p. 81

[17] In spite of his speeches, Dwight Eisenhower was baptized when he was already president of the United States and, they say, he had never visited any temple. After presenting himself as a religious man, but without any involvement with any religious sect during his electoral campaign, Eisenhower realized that he could not continue being president unless he was a member of a church. It was Billy Graham who recommended which temples he should visit

[18] Quoted by Martin Marty, “Civic Religion”, in Modern American Religion, vol. 3, p. 300

[19] Quoted by Martin Marty, op. cit., p. 295

[20] I’ve Seen the Day, by George M. Docherty, p. 160

[21] “The driving force behind America’s foreign policy”, by George W. Bush, The Independent, February 26, 2004. Analyzed in Tribunes Libres Internationales n°294, Voltaire, February 26, 2004

[22] Selon Dieu, Bush gagnera l’élection en 2004, Voltaire, January 7, 2004

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