In Ourselves and Each Other We Trust

Today I’m introducing a new, now-and-then feature into the blog: Reclaimed Anniversaries. Some of these reclaimed anniversaries will be to celebrate, some to grieve over, some to anger us.

All of them are to educate ourselves about moments in history we’ve been robbed of, moments that are rightfully ours as citizens of this planet (and some U.S.-specific for those of us who are also citizens of this republic), historical events and facts that would surprise and empower us, if we knew about them. There might not be a calendar example of this every week, or there might be so many that this might grow into its own regular feature, but for now it can share space with Fighting Words in this blog.So.

Self-named traditionalists are rabid to keep inserting “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. But that is actually a new-fangled anti-tradition.

In a few days, on June 15, we should note with bitter sadness the 65th anniversary of a religious wound to our secular nation, a violation of that same Pledge of Allegiance.

Those two words “under God” never appeared in the original Pledge, which was penned in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister forced to resign the pulpit for having called himself a Christian socialist. After lengthy, intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus and the American Legion, “One nation, indivisible” was changed by Congress to “One nation under God, indivisible”; this was as late as 1954, reflecting Senator Joseph McCarthy’s bombast against “godless Communism” at the height of the Cold War, and it was done with the approval of then President Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Francis Bellamy’s granddaughter, Barbara Bellamy Wright, denounced the insertion, claiming that her grandfather “would have objected strongly to this change, as it changed the fundamental meaning . . . he had considered that ‘one nation, indivisible’ conveyed the deep meaning that after the Civil War our nation could not be divided.”)

That had been the tradition. On Flag Day back in 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court (in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette) ruled unconstitutional a law compelling schoolchildren to recite the Pledge and salute the flag. Writing for the Court, the great Justice Robert H. Jackson declared, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”

The [Original] Pledge of Allegiance
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands. One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Comparably, the motto on U.S. coins—the major exchange medium in the 18th-century—was simply the word ”Liberty.”

“In God we trust” began to appear informally on some U.S. coins only as late as the 19th-century, due to a spread of religious intensity following the agonies of the Civil War. But when, early in the 20th-century, President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned the design for new coinage, he made a point of leaving the words off, expressing his ”very firm conviction that to put such a motto [‘in God we trust’] on it not only does no good but does positive harm.” Yet Congress overrode him, formally legislating the four words for coins in 1908—this, after a lengthy crusade initiated by a hyper-religious director of the mint, James Pollock. The well-organized outcry, including petitions from religious congregations, frightened Rough Rider Roosevelt so much that he conceded, announcing that he would not veto the bill after all.

Despite having slowly become the principle medium of exchange during the following decades, paper currency escaped being ”godded up” until 1957. Religious advocates began agitating for the words on paper currency during the 1940s, in the wake of World War II, but not until the more welcoming conservative political climate of the 1950s did they succeed. The 1950s also saw IGWT’s adoption as the national “motto,” now ensconced on a wall in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Founders would be outraged. They knew that this Great Experiment had never been tried before and might well fail, because its goal seemed almost self-contradictory. Their original motto and Great Seal—devised by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson—was E Pluribus Unum (Latin for “From many, one”), which, with the word ”Liberty,” was considered sufficient and appropriate, until the charge of the god brigades.

Oh how much easier, simpler, sleepier, to trust in gods and in strongmen!

It’s worth noticing that the concept of unity as triumphant while affirming liberty and diversity is the concept under attack today.

E pluribus unum means, actually, in ourselves and each other we trust.

That, it turns out, may be the greatest challenge of all.