70 Years Under God - Word&Way

70 Years Under God

Note: This Friday (June 14) is Flag Day. I’ll be appearing in a free webinar hosted by Faithful America that day to talk about Baptizing America: How Mainline Protestants Helped Build Christian Nationalism. You can sign up to join the conversation between Rev. Nathan Empsall and myself at 3 pm ET (2 pm CT) on Friday.

Rev. George Docherty was a progressive Presbyterian minister serving in the nation’s capital. In 1965, he marched with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in a civil rights demonstration after Bloody Sunday. Docherty later criticized the Vietnam War from the pulpit of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara sat in the sanctuary. At Docherty’s invitation, King preached at the church — and condemned the Vietnam War — just two months before King’s assassination.

And Docherty pushed Christian Nationalism.

A progressive, mainline Protestant minister doesn’t match our stereotype of someone espousing Christian Nationalism today in a time of Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, Sean Feucht, Charlie Kirk, and other conservative evangelicals wanting to codify Christianity. Yet, Docherty not only inspired evangelical political engagement, he stamped Christian Nationalism on our nation in ways none of today’s evangelicals have.

Docherty is why 70 years ago this Friday (June 14) “under God” was added to the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance.

The story of this significant shift can be traced to a sermon. A native of Scotland, Docherty moved to the U.S. in 1950 to pastor New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. The church sits in a place of religious and political privilege. Just two blocks from the White House, it’s the church President Abraham Lincoln often attended, even renting a pew as was customary in that day to guarantee your seat (because nothing’s worse than some new person sitting in your spot just because you showed up a little late). Other presidents had also attended, like John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, James Polk, and James Buchanan.

When Docherty arrived at the church, he replaced another Scotland-born preacher who had gained national prominence. Rev. Peter Marshall started at New York Avenue in 1937 and his sermons were widely published during World War II. In 1946, Marshall became the chaplain for the U.S. Senate, serving in that role and the pastorate until his sudden death in 1949. The biography of him written by his widow, A Man Called Peter, was a hit, as was the Oscar-nominated film by the same name.

In just a few years, Docherty would emerge from the shadow of his predecessor to leave his own stamp on the nation. As he prepared for a Sunday service in February 1954, he did so knowing that President Dwight D. Eisenhower would be sitting in the sanctuary … in “Lincoln’s pew” for “Lincoln Sunday.” Playing off their tie to the 16th president, the church often welcomed the president or other significant administration figures for a special service on the Sunday closest to Lincoln’s birthday. For Feb. 7, 1954, Docherty decided to write a sermon geared to one man with the mission of getting “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance.

George Docherty (left) and President Eisenhower (second from left) on the morning of February 7, 1954, at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. (Public Domain)

The Sermon

As Beau Underwood and I documented in our new book Baptizing America: How Mainline Protestants Helped Build Christian Nationalism, Docherty believed the U.S. was a Christian nation. In his sermon, he insisted the nation was based on the Ten Commandments and “the words of Jesus of Nazareth, the living Word of God for the world.” Thus, he called a belief in God “the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life.” That’s why it bothered him that the Pledge had left “God” out of it since it had been penned 62 years earlier.

Having grown up in Scotland declaring, “God save the king,” Docherty admitted he found the lack of “God” in the U.S. statement of allegiance troubling when his young son recited the Pledge. With the U.S. in the early years of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the preacher found this omission particularly problematic. He thought the godless Pledge was basically something people in Moscow could say to their flag, so he wanted to mark the nation in opposition to communism. This Cold War, for Docherty, was not a political struggle as much as a theological one.

“We face today a theological war,” Docherty argued in his sermon. “It is Armageddon, a battle of the gods. It is the view of man as it comes down to us from Judeo-Christian civilization in mortal combat against modern, secularized, godless humanity. … To omit the words ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance is to omit the definitive character of the American way of life.”

Lest we think Docherty offered some sort of innocent, unifying civil religion, he said the quiet part out loud. He acknowledged in his sermon that atheists wouldn’t be able to honestly say the Pledge if “God” was added. But that didn’t bother him because he was willing to civically excommunicate those citizens because of their religious beliefs.

“Philosophically speaking, an atheistic American is a contradiction in terms,” he insisted. “They really are spiritual parasites. … If he denies the Christian ethic, he falls short of the American ideal of life.”

The next day, members of Congress filed legislation to enact Docherty’s proposal. Less than four months later, Eisenhower signed the bill adding “under God” on Flag Day. Members of Congress celebrated on the Capitol steps by saying the new version of the Pledge and singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”

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The Legacy

Seven decades after Docherty’s sermon and Eisenhower’s signature, those pushing Christian Nationalism often invoke “under God” in the Pledge as proof that the U.S. should be considered a Christian nation. Only now it’s usually not progressive mainline ministers like Docherty making the argument but Trumpian conservatives. Like disgraced former Lt. General Michael Flynn, who led the reciting of the Pledge during the latest iteration of the ReAwaken America Tour last weekend in Detroit, Michigan, that included speakers like Eric Trump and Rudy Giuliani alongside pro-Trump “prophets.”

“The smart thing was they finally figured out it was ‘under God’ because that’s really how this nation came about,” Flynn said as he highlighted the addition of that phrase to the Pledge.

Speaker Mike Johnson has also invoked the phrase to justify his Christian Nationalism. He claimed, “We were established as one nation under God.” And he argued, “[The founders] understood that you had to have a recognition that we are under God.” Of course, there’s quite a bit of time between the U.S.’s establishment by the founders at the end of the 18th century and the addition of “under God” in the Pledge in 1954. But the late addition to the Pledge is used to retroactively baptize the nation to justify exclusionary, conservative Christian Nationalism.

This is the world a progressive, MLK-supporting, anti-war mainline Presbyterian minister helped inspire. And that’s why we need to reckon with ways mainline churches, denominations, clergy, and politicians helped build Christian Nationalism.

Yet, as I visited Washington, D.C., in April for the Summit for Religious Freedom and walked past New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, I saw not reflection, lament, or repentance, but celebration for helping build Christian Nationalism. A plaque on the outside of the church honors Docherty not for his civil rights work or his anti-Vietnam War preaching but for getting “under God” in the Pledge. The plaque also features other instances to prove the church’s political influence, like noting 17 presidents have worshiped there and President Harry Truman laid the cornerstone to the current building in 1951.

Left: New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. Right: A plaque on the side of the church’s building. (Brian Kaylor/Word&Way)

While we should criticize those like Michael Flynn and Mike Johnson for pushing Christian Nationalism today, mainline Protestants need to also reckon with how they helped set the stage for a dangerous ideology threatening our democracy and our Christian witness. We need fewer celebratory plaques and more sackcloths and ashes.

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor

Don’t forget to sign up for Faithful America’s webinar this Friday at 3 pm (ET). And buy Baptizing America, share a photo on Facebook, write a positive review on Amazon, tell others about it, and invite us to speak to your church.

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