THE PLEDGE OF Allegiance has been in legal jeopardy for years, all because it contains the words “under God” -- a phrase Abraham Lincoln stamped on the American consciousness when he used it on Nov. 19, 1863, 142 years ago, in the Gettysburg Address.
The pledge originated in 1892, was modified in 1923 and again in 1924, and most recently in 1954 when the words “under God” were added. In 2004, and again in 2005, a California atheist named Michael Newdow filed lawsuits claiming that it was unconstitutional for children to be asked to say the pledge in public schools. In September, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled for Newdow. Inviting students to say the pledge violates their right to be “free from a coercive requirement to affirm God,” he wrote. Presumably the pledge -- or at least the words “under God” -- will wind up being vetted by the Supreme Court.
One of the tragedies in all of this is the attempt to remove history’s footprint from the pledge. The pledge asks children to state their allegiance to " ... one nation, under God ... " Lincoln spoke the words “this nation, under God” at the spiritual center point of American history. Today they remind us (or ought to) of how hard this nation has struggled and how dearly it has paid to move closer to its own sublime declaration that “all men are created equal.”
Lincoln hated slavery. But he led the Northern states into the Civil War for only one stated, official reason: to hold the Union together by preventing the Confederate states from seceding. At the start of the fighting, public opinion would not have supported a war to end slavery. But as casualties mounted, the public’s ideas shifted, and Lincoln felt them shifting. (As soldiers die in war, Americans raise their sights -- as they have in Iraq. If Americans are to die, they must die for the greatest, noblest cause the public and its leaders can imagine.)
In September 1862, Lincoln dramatically changed the war’s character by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. As of Jan. 1, 1863, all slaves in rebellious regions of the country “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Lincoln saw the proclamation as a first step. Eventually all slaves were freed by the 13th Amendment in 1865.
The Emancipation Proclamation “lifted the Civil War to the dignity of a crusade,” wrote Samuel Eliot Morison, Henry Steele Commager and William E. Leuchtenburg in their classic history, “Growth of the American Republic.” But crusades can succeed or fail. When the proclamation was issued, no one knew whether the North could beat the South and enforce the president’s dramatic edict.
The question was answered on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd of July 1863, in the bloody battle of Gettysburg. On the Union side alone, roughly 23,000 men were killed, wounded or missing. There was far more fighting ahead, but after Gettysburg there was virtually no doubt that the Union would win -- and at last be in a position to free the slaves and start on the long, hard road to justice and reunification.
By delivering the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln built a sacred shrine out of words on the most important battlefield in American history -- a small shrine, of wonderful beauty, that reminds us why an earlier generation of Northerners fought, bled and died to win the Civil War: So that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
Lincoln added the words “under God” at the last minute. They don’t appear in drafts of the speech prepared beforehand. But he included them in copies he made afterward, and historians believe he said them in the speech. Lincoln had grown steadily more religious as he grew older. As his political and spiritual genius flowered, he re-conceived America as a nation where high ideals were not just words on parchment, they were marching orders, principles to fight and die for.
“It is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence,” he said, “and if I can learn what it is, I will do it.” He wished to be a “humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people.” He knew well that Americans are far from perfect. But he believed in their duty to make themselves better.
When we invite our children to say the pledge, including “one nation, under God,” we are asking them to repeat Lincoln’s phrase, and perhaps even to feel his presence. Children who were reared as atheists, whose parents are wiser than Lincoln on the subject of God, are free to keep quiet.
And even if children should feel coerced by peer pressure (as the lawsuits have argued) to say that terrible G-word, they won’t be magically converted into Christians or Jews or God-believers of any stripe. In fact, children who don’t believe in God might still like to be reminded how Lincoln saw this nation, might like to test drive the worldview of the man who saved the Union and set it on the path to justice.
If that’s unconstitutional, we have made a serious mistake somewhere along the line. If we have any guts, we will go back and put it right.