Montana Viewpoint: Patriotism, politics and prejudice

Flag Day is the day we honor our nation’s symbol, Old Glory. We will face the flag, salute appropriately and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

It happens that we are also in the midst of a presidential election in which the terms “socialist” and “Muslim” are frequently heard, mostly in a disparaging way. In light of that, it’s interesting to consider the history of the Pledge and how the words “under God” were added.


Jim Elliott

The Pledge was written by a minister who called himself a Christian socialist, and the man who moved President Eisenhower to act on making “under God” an official part of the pledge was not an American citizen, and he pushed for the phrase because he felt it would best encompass Christians, Jews and Muslims.

We have to start with Columbus Day. In the late 19th century, the Knights of Columbus were lobbying hard to make Columbus Day a national holiday in time for the 400th anniversary of the explorer’s landing in what became known as America.

They were not alone in their quest. Among their supporters was an influential former Baptist minister from Rome, N.Y. He was Francis Bellamy, a self-described “Christian socialist” who promoted a new interpretation of liberty in America that would replace what he called “liberty for great corporations to oppress the people” with a universal liberty where “Every man shall have the right to work and earn bread for his family; [and] that every child shall be given as good a chance as the government can afford.”

He believed that once Columbus Day was established as a national holiday, the celebrations would not be complete without a patriotic ode, and it fell to Bellamy to write the Pledge of Allegiance, which was first voiced on Columbus Day, 1892.

The Pledge was used in various forms for decades, but we did not have an official Pledge until 1945, when Congress endorsed it. However, the Pledge that came out of Congress did not mention God, and many people thought it should. A bill to add the words “under God” was introduced in early 1953, but it lingered in Congress despite lobbying by the Knights of Columbus and the American Legion.

As much as the change in the wording was wanted, little was being done to advance the legislation until the Rev. George M. Docherty, the Scottish-born minister of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church of Washington, D. C. (also known as the Church of the Presidents), preached the importance of the idea to President Dwight D. Eisenhower on Lincoln’s birthday, 1954.

Not yet 40, Docherty gave a sermon that got the president’s and the nation’s attention. Unlike Americans who recited the Pledge by rote, Docherty felt that he could better ponder its meaning because he was not an American. Docherty found it wanting, and what it wanted, he said, was a reference to the Almighty, and not just the Presbyterian Almighty.

In his sermon he said, “It must be ‘UNDER GOD’ to include the people of the great Jewish community and the people of the Moslem faith and the myriad of denominations of Christians in the land.”

The sermon was lauded nationwide, and the president was moved to action. He supported the idea, he said as he left the church. Congress finally passed the legislation and Eisenhower signed it into law on Flag Day, 1954.

That’s the story in a nutshell, but there followed a couple of events that would probably make today’s Americans more comfortable with the history. Bellamy later renounced socialism and became an ardent foe of the Communist movement, and Docherty became an American citizen.

For me, the lesson is this: no political or religious belief has a lock on patriotism. Love of America and our Flag is shared by Americans of every walk of life regardless of politics or faith, and disparaging the patriotism of others diminishes patriotism itself.

Long may that love wave.

Note: The basis for this article, and the source of the quotations, is a book by Kevin Kruse, “One Nation Under God.”

Jim Elliott is a former chairman of the Montana Democratic Party and a former state senator from Trout Creek. 

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