By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 30, 2008
The Rev. George M. Docherty, the former pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church who delivered an influential sermon that led to the insertion of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, died Nov. 27 of a heart ailment at his home in Alexandria, Pa. He was 97.
Rev. Docherty (pronounced DOCK-er-tee) was summoned from his native Scotland in 1950 to become pastor of the historic church in downtown Washington, which Abraham Lincoln attended when he was president in the 1860s. Each year on the Sunday closest to Lincoln's birthday, Feb. 12, the church had a special service that was traditionally attended by the president.
On Feb. 7, 1954, with President Dwight D. Eisenhower sitting in Lincoln's pew, Rev. Docherty urged that the pledge to the flag be amended, saying, "To omit the words 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance is to omit the definitive factor in the American way of life."
He borrowed the phrase from the Gettysburg Address, in which Lincoln said, "this Nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom."
Rev. Docherty's inspiration for the sermon came from his son's schoolroom experience of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, which was written in 1892 by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy. When Rev. Docherty realized that it had no reference to God, he later said, "I had found my sermon."
Without mentioning a deity, Rev. Docherty said, the pledge could just as easily apply to the communist Soviet Union: "I could hear little Muscovites recite a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag with equal solemnity."
In fact, Rev. Docherty first delivered his sermon in 1952, but to little effect. Other groups, including the Knights of Columbus and a veterans' organization, had advocated a similar change in the pledge.
But in 1954, with Eisenhower in the congregation and the threat of communism in the air, Rev. Docherty's message immediately resounded on Capitol Hill. Bills were introduced in Congress that week, and Eisenhower signed the "under God" act into law within four months.
Then as now, legal scholars questioned whether a reference to a deity in a patriotic pledge violated the First Amendment separation of church and state. In recent years, there have been several court challenges to the phrase.
But Rev. Docherty remained unmoved. The phrase "under God" could include "the great Jewish community and the people of the Muslim faith," in his view, but he drew the line at atheists.
"An atheistic American is a contradiction in terms," he said in his sermon. "If you deny the Christian ethic, you fall short of the American ideal of life."
George Macpherson Docherty was born May 9, 1911, in Glasgow, Scotland, and was a shipping clerk in his youth. He was in his 20s when he decided to enter the ministry and later received two degrees from the University of Glasgow.
He was a pastor in Glasgow and Aberdeen, Scotland, before he was invited to New York Avenue Presbyterian, which was known as "Lincoln's church."
During his 26 years as pastor, he became better known for his liberal social activism than for his quest to alter the Pledge of Allegiance. He promoted racial equality and led outreach efforts to feed and educate the city's hungry and poor. His church was often a staging point for civil rights and antiwar demonstrations, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached from its pulpit. Rev. Docherty was with King on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the "Bloody Sunday" civil rights march in Selma, Ala., in 1965.
Rev. Docherty often spoke out against the Vietnam War in his sermons, even when Robert S. McNamara -- defense secretary in the 1960s -- was present for services.
One of his church's regular parishioners in the 1970s was special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, whose efforts to investigate the Watergate were often thwarted by the Nixon White House. On "Lincoln Sunday" 1974, with both Jaworski and President Richard M. Nixon present, Rev. Docherty pointedly titled his sermon "Whatever Happened to Courage?" Six months later, Nixon resigned.
Rev. Docherty retired in 1976, lived in Scotland for 13 years and published his memoirs, "I've Seen the Day," in 1983. He settled in Pennsylvania in 1989 and continued to work as a guest pastor and teacher until three years ago.
His first wife, Mary Watson Docherty, died in 1970. Two children from that marriage, Mairi Gate and David W. Docherty, died in 1989 and 2006, respectively.
Survivors include his wife of 36 years, Sue M. Docherty of Alexandria, Pa.; a son from his first marriage, Garth Docherty of Alexandria, Va.; two children from his second marriage, Julie Jancosko of Pittsburgh and Bridget Fouse of Alexandria, Pa.; and five grandchildren.
When the newly revised Pledge of Allegiance was being celebrated in a Flag Day ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in 1954, "Everybody who was anybody was present except me," Rev. Docherty told The Washington Post in 2002. "They forgot to invite me."