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Friday, September 15, 2017

September 15, 2017: Pledge Posts: The 1950s Addition

[September 8th marked the 125th anniversary of the first publication of the Pledge of Allegiance, in the popular magazine The Youth’s Companion. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy this complex shared text, starting with a repeat of one of my oldest posts and then moving into four new ones. Leading up to a weekend post on the very salient question of the worst and best versions of allegiance!]
On three contexts for the 1954 federal law that added “under God” to the Pledge.
As I wrote in Monday’s post, one of the clearest contexts for the early 1950s campaign to add the phrase “under God” to the Pledge was the unfolding Cold War conflict with the (famously “godless”) Soviet Union. As quoted in that first hyperlinked article, the Presbyterian Reverend George Docherty, President Eisenhower’s Washington, DC pastor and one of the most vocal advocates for adding the phrase, argued in a February 1954 sermon that he “could hear little Moscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag with equal solemnity.” These arguments missed entirely the fact that what differentiated the United States from the Soviet Union was not state religion but instead precisely the opposite: a nation where no thoughts or actions were prescribed by the state, and indeed where the Constitution’s only reference to religion (outside of its amendments) was a guarantee that there would be no religious litmus test for officeholding in the new nation. And they foreshadowed one of the Cold War’s most troubling and pervasive trends: attempts to link the US to Christianity and the Soviet Union to atheism, and thus to define American atheists as somehow outside of and even opposed to the national community (as illustrated most fully by Ronald Reagan’s 1983 “evil empire” speech).
As historian Kevin Kruse argues compellingly in his magisterial book One Nation Under God: How Corporate American Invented Christian America (2015), however, that Cold War trend was also part of a longer 20th century history. Kruse clearly lays out the links between such disparate forces as corporate resistance to the New Deal and evangelical Christianity in that hyperlinked NPR interview, which like all of his public scholarship is lucid, salient, and well worth your time. Here I’ll just highlight another pair of 1950s trends with which Kruse likewise engages: the rise of television as a mainstream medium, and with it the popularity of the first televangelists, most especially Reverend Billy Graham. There had of course been other periods of national popular religious revival, such as the two Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries. But I would argue that those prior revivals, despite the nationwide presence, had maintained an emphasis on the local, on particular communities gathering (in churches, under tents, in fields) to practice and share in their spirituality. Whereas by definition televangelism was about connecting people around the country, linking each individual or family watching the television to their fellow “congregants” around their own televisions. Such links made the concept of a communal, national “Christian America” far more fully possible, I’d say.
Yet despite the direct connection between those 1950s shifts and the addition of “under God” to the Pledge (as well as of “In God We Trust” to our currency just a couple years later, in 1956), I think that many if not most Americans believe the phrase has been part of the Pledge since its origins. Partly that’s due of course to a general lack of historical awareness, a problem that public scholars like Kruse and myself are committed to helping remedy. But partly it’s due to a very direct and ongoing intended purpose of adding the phrase: revising our collective memories, rewriting our understanding of American history and identity to make it into something (Christian, European American, homogeneous) that it quite simply was not. In that sense, it’s both ironic and pitch-perfect that the social group The Knights of Columbus were among the first to advocate for adding the phrase: arguing that the United States is one nation under a Christian God (or any God, for that matter) means, among many other things, writing Native Americans out of our history and community in a way quite parallel to Columbus’ many exclusions and genocides. There’s a direct throughline, that is, between revising the Pledge and pledging to “Make American Great Again”—both are mythologizing campaigns in service of an imagined American identity, and both thus demand our response and resistance.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other takes on the Pledge you’d share?

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