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One Nation Under God

Matt Schudel

A couple of days ago, I wrote an obituary of George M. Docherty, the former pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington. Rev. Docherty was a Scotsman who came to Washington in 1950 to become the minister at what is still known as "Lincoln's church" -- since 1865, Lincoln's pew has been reserved for visiting presidents.

Rev. Docherty had been in the country only two years -- and was not yet a U.S. citizen -- when he heard his then-7-year-old son recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which then contained the words, "... one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice ..."

Rev. Docherty was upset that the pledge contained no reference to God because, as he put it, there was nothing to distinguish it from a statement from a communist country: "I could hear little Muscovites recite a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag with equal solemnity," he said in his sermon.

When he first delivered the sermon in 1952, it went nowhere. But on "Lincoln Sunday" -- Feb. 7, 1954 -- Rev. Docherty delivered the sermon again, with President Dwight D. Eisenhower sitting in Lincoln's pew. Reporters covered the sermon, The president agreed with Rev. Docherty's sentiments, and congressmen immediately introduced bills to make "under God" a mandatory part of the classsroom pledge every schoolchild learns.

Interestingly enough, Rev. Docherty favored putting the phrase "under God" after "indivisible," which would have given the pledge a subtly different meaning: " ... one nation indivisible under God, with liberty and justice for all." The pledge was originally written in 1892 by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy and came into wide use during World War I but was not officially sanctioned by Congress until 1942. Bellamy's intent with the word "indivisible" was to emphasize the unity of the United States after the civil war. Rev. Docherty's choice for the placement of "under God" would have preserved the original historic sense of the pledge.

Ultimately, the phrase divided Bellamy's "one nation indivisible."

From the beginning, legal scholars questioned whether children in public schools should recite a pledge that included an overt reference to God, but Rev. Docherty never wavered in his stance. "An atheistic American is a contradiction in terms," he said. "If you deny the Christian ethic, you fall short of the American ideal of life."

It's curious that Rev. Docherty should be identified with a point of view that is now considered politically and culturally conservative when he was, in every other respect, known for his socially liberal stances. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma, Ala., opposed the Vietnam War and often preached against it, even when Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara was in his congregation.

One reader asked whether Rev. Docherty was a U.S. citizen when he urged the change to the Pledge of Allegiance that elicited such First Amendment controversy. No, he was not; he became a U.S. citizen in 1960.

Washingtonians with long memories may remember Rev. Docherty for one other thing, as well: He was a frequent presence on television for many years, broadcasting Sunday sermons and explicating Bible verses late at night when the TV station was about to sign off.

Rev. Docherty's name may not be known to many people, but left a most interesting and enduring legacy that is felt by every schoolchild in America.

By Matt Schudel |  December 2, 2008; 5:58 PM ET  | Category:  Matt Schudel
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Your usual good job, Matt.
Unfortunately, the last line or two got "clipped".
Also, I'm curious. You quoted "freedom and justice". Can you divulge the source for this. I can't locate a version which uses this wording.

Posted by: getgasr | December 3, 2008 12:31 PM

Hi, getgasr. The little leftover line at the end was just extra copy I though I had deleted but hadn't seen when I was putting the blog item together. Also, the phrase "freedom and justice" is my error as well. I'll correct the actual blog post to read "liberty and justice." Forgive me -- this is what happens sometimes when we write unfiltered, without the benefit of copy editors.

Posted by: schudelm | December 3, 2008 3:31 PM

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