June 28, 2002

With Little Ado, Congress Put God in Pledge in 1954


WASHINGTON, June 27 — The year 1954 was one of political upheaval in the United States.

Senator Joseph R. McCarthy crusaded against Communists in the government and was eventually censured by the Senate. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles enunciated a policy of "massive retaliation" against aggression by the Soviet Union. The Supreme Court found school segregation unconstitutional. Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress for the last time in the 20th century.

As well, in June, by voice votes and with little discussion, the Senate and House passed a resolution adding two words, "under God," to the Pledge of Allegiance.

Now, 48 years later, a federal appeals court in San Francisco has ruled that the words are an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state.

The ruling on Wednesday by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit gained much more attention than the change itself, which was reported briefly on an inside page in The New York Times.

The change was made to draw attention to the difference between the system of government in this country and "godless Communism." Senator Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, was a member of the House of Representatives in 1954 and is the only person now in Congress who was in Congress then.

Introducing his resolution in the Senate, Senator Homer Ferguson, Republican of Michigan, declared, "I believe this modification of the pledge is important because it highlights one of the real fundamental differences between the free world and the Communist world, namely belief in God."

No one in the Senate or the House spoke in opposition.

While Congress was considering the resolution, lawmakers were flooded with letters of support from churches, veterans groups, civic and fraternal clubs and labor unions. Many newspapers backed it editorially, and so did radio commentators.

The Rev. George M. Docherty, pastor of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's church in Washington, the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, proclaimed in a sermon that without the two little words "it could be the pledge of any republic."

"In fact," Mr. Docherty declared, "I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag."

In the ceremony when he signed the legislation, President Eisenhower said, "From this day forward, the millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty."

Paradoxically, Dr. John W. Baer, who published a history of the pledge in 1992, said that Francis Bellamy, a former Baptist minister who wrote the pledge in 1892, would probably have disapproved of the change.

Mr. Bellamy, Dr. Baer said, was a socialist who left the ministry under pressure because of the politics in his sermons and stopped attending church altogether after he retired because of the racial bigotry he found there.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company