How the Cold War Brought Religion Into Public Schools

On June 14, 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower signed a bill to insert the phrase “under God” into the American Pledge of Allegiance that children recited each morning at school. Previously, the pledge – originally written in 1892 – contained no reference to religion.

The drive to add “under God” to the pledge gained momentum during the second Red Scare, a period when American politicians were keen to assert the moral superiority of American capitalism over Soviet communism, which many conservatives considered “godless”.

Court cases regarding whether students had to recite the pledge had already reached the United States Supreme Court in the 1940s, before “under God” was added. In the decades following the 1954 addition, there were numerous other lawsuits related to the engagement.

Video: Freedom of Religion in the United States

The initial engagement was a marketing gimmick

The first version of the Pledge of Allegiance was written for the Columbian Exposition in October 1892 to mark the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. Historians have long identified its author as Francis Bellamy, an ordained Baptist minister and Christian socialite who got a job with the family magazine. youthful companion. (In 2022, historians raised new questions about whether Bellamy wrote the pledge himself or stole it from a boy who submitted it to the magazine.)

As a marketing gimmick, Bellamy came up with a program that schools can use to mark the Columbian Expo and successfully lobbied Congress to support the program. Part of this program was an oath of allegiance, which originally read:

“I swear allegiance to my flag and to the Republic it represents – an indivisible Nation – with liberty and justice for all.”

Like the magazine’s other marketing gimmicks, which included sending flags and pictures of George Washington to schools, the pledge was part of a push for “Americanization”. Bellamy was one of many Protestant Americans of northern European descent who believed that new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, many of whom were Catholic, were harmful to the “American” way of life and that they had to assimilate.

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Promise standardized during World War II

In subsequent decades, schools and organizations that chose to recite a promise used variations of Youth Companion version or have made their own promises. On June 22, 1942, just over six months after the United States entered World War II, the United States government officially recognized a standard version of the pledge for the first time when Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the american flag code.

The pledge in the flag code was a version of Youth Companion original pledge, and still contained no reference to God. Even so, the issue of whether children must recite the pledge in school was raised in two Supreme Court cases around this time.

In 1940, the court ruled in Minersville School District v. Gobitis that forcing Jehovah’s Witnesses to recite the promise in school was not a violation of their religious freedom (Jehovah’s Witnesses consider saluting a flag to be an act of worship). Three years later, the court reversed that decision by West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette in another case involving Jehovah’s Witnesses, ruling that forcing students to recite the pledge was a violation of their First Amendment rights.

Eisenhower adds “Under God” to his official pledge

President Dwight D. Eisenhower

President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a law adding “under God” to the oath of allegiance. He also made “In God We Trust” the official motto of the United States.

One of the first major groups to request the addition of “under God” to the promise was the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization. In 1952, he began asking the federal government to add the phrase to the Pledge of Allegiance. U.S. Representative Louis C. Rabaut, a Democrat from Michigan, was persuaded by the petition and introduced legislation to add the phrase to the pledge.

Rabaut argued that adding the phrase would give students “a deeper understanding of the true meaning of patriotism”, while adding that it could also provide “a bulwark against communism”. In February 1954, Eisenhower attended a sermon by Reverend George Docherty at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. which greatly influenced his ideas on the subject.

“To omit the words ‘under God’ from the oath of allegiance is to omit the definitive factor of the American way of life,” Docherty preached. He dismissed atheists’ right to oppose, arguing that an “Atheist American is a contradiction in terms”, because if “you deny the Christian ethic, you fall short of the American ideal of life”. .

With Eisenhower on board, the campaign to adopt the phrase gained more momentum. On June 14, Flag Day, Eisenhower signed legislation adding “under God” to the oath of allegiance. Two years later, Eisenhower also made “In God We Trust” the official motto of the United States (it did not appear on paper money or stamps until the 1950s).

The addition of “under God” to the promise led to new lawsuits over whether it violated the rights of students and teachers. In the 1950s and 1960s, prominent atheist Joseph L. Lewis sued New York State for this promise. Over the following decades, similar cases were filed in different states, with the most prominent cases reaching federal courts and even the United States Supreme Court in the 21st century.

In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled against Michael Newdow, who objected to his daughter having to say the engagement in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, on the grounds that he did not have sufficient custody of his daughter to press charges. In 2010, the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled against Newdow in a separate but related lawsuit, arguing that the pledge did not violate the rights of the students because they could choose not to participate.

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