Standing in the Rose Garden at the beginning of May, President Trump took the lectern to commemorate the National Day of Prayer. Wearing an American flag lapel pin, and with a life-size flag a few feet behind him, Trump said that prayer uplifts the soul and unites Americans “all as one nation, under God.”
He continued: “And we say it here. You know, a lot of people, they don’t say it. But you know what? They’re starting to say it more.”
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In fact, the controversial phrase “under God” was not always part of the Pledge of Allegiance. It was added by law on June 14, 1954, the day Trump turned 8 years old. (Yes, Trump’s birthday is Flag Day.)
The original pledge took root in the late 19th century. In 1891, Francis Bellamy, the son of a Baptist minister and a former preacher himself, accepted a job with the family magazine Youth’s Companion. Put to work in the magazine’s promotions department, Bellamy was tasked with creating patriotic programs for schoolchildren ahead of the dedication of the Columbian Exposition in October 1892, the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World, according to Smithsonian Magazine
Bellamy knew he would need a salute to the flag. He felt strongly that a pledge should invoke allegiance, especially so soon after the Civil War. His original pledge read:
“I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands — one Nation indivisible — with liberty and justice for all.”
Tweaks came later. In one instance, the words were changed to “the flag of the United States” out of fear that immigrant children would not understand clearly which flag they were meant to be saluting, Smithsonian Magazine wrote.
It was not long before calls to insert “under God” gained momentum. Enter the Rev. George Docherty.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1911, Docherty was brought to the United States in 1950 to become pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, a historic house of worship in downtown Washington that Abraham Lincoln attended. When Lincoln was president, the church held a special service on the Sunday closest to his birthday that he liked to attend, Matt Schudel wrote in The Post’s 2008 obituary of Docherty.
Docherty himself had not heard the Pledge of Allegiance until he heard his young son recite it.
“I came from Scotland, where we said ‘God save our gracious queen,’ ‘God save our gracious king,’ ” Docherty told the Associated Press in 2004. “Here was the pledge of allegiance, and God wasn’t in it at all.”
Docherty had previously sermonized about the need to insert “under God” into the pledge, but he found his prime audience in February 1954, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower attended Docherty’s service in honor of Lincoln’s birthday.
“To omit the words ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance is to omit the definitive factor in the American way of life,” Docherty said from the pulpit. He felt that “under God” was broad enough to include Jews and Muslims, although he discounted atheists.
“An atheistic American is a contradiction in terms,” Docherty said in his sermon. “If you deny the Christian ethic, you fall short of the American ideal of life.”
Calls to add “under God” to the pledge had been promoted by groups including the Knights of Columbus and a veterans organization. But Eisenhower proved to be the audience the movement was missing.
The week of Docherty’s sermon, bills were introduced in Congress to add the phrase, and Eisenhower signed the act into law on Flag Day — June 14, 1954.
Until his death in 2008 at age 97, Docherty was known for his support of racial equality, and his church was often a home for civil rights and antiwar demonstrations. Docherty was with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., during one of the civil rights marches across the bridge in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday. And Docherty criticized the Vietnam War from his pulpit, even when Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was in the congregation.
And on “Lincoln Sunday” in 1974, when Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski and President Richard Nixon attended the service, Docherty titled his sermon “Whatever Happened to Courage?” It was six months before Nixon resigned.
Still, Docherty was not always in the spotlight. In 2002, he told The Washington Post that when the revised Pledge of Allegiance was celebrated at the U.S. Capitol on Flag Day 1954, “everybody who was anybody was present except me. They forgot to invite me.”
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