Feature

George Docherty

The minister who put God in the Pledge of Allegiance

The minister who put God in the Pledge of AllegianceGeorge Docherty1911–2008

One day in 1954, the Rev. George Docherty asked his 7-year-old son, Garth, what he had done in school. “Well,” said Garth, “we started with the Pledge of Allegiance.” He then rattled it off, concluding, “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Docherty was appalled that God wasn’t mentioned. “I could hear little Muscovites recite a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag with equal solemnity,” said the Scottish-born Docherty. In large part due to his urging, Congress inserted the words “under God” between “one nation” and “indivisible,” with repercussions that echo today.

A native of Glasgow, Docherty moved to the U.S. to become pastor of the historic New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., said The Washington Post. During his 26 years there, he helped feed and educate the capital’s poor, marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and publicly opposed the Vietnam War. But he was best remembered for the sermon he delivered on Feb. 7, 1954. “To omit the words ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance,” Docherty declared, “is to omit the definitive factor in the American way of life.” President Eisenhower happened to be in the audience, and with fear of godless communism in the air, “Docherty’s message immediately resounded on Capitol Hill.” Bills to amend the pledge were introduced in Congress that week, and Eisenhower signed the new law that Flag Day.

More than 50 years on, “under God” has become a flashpoint as civil libertarians have argued that it constitutes an unlawful melding of church and state. Docherty always insisted that he wasn’t a Christian proselytizer. Members of “the great Jewish community and the people of the Muslim faith,” he said, could recite the pledge without taking offense. But he did not feel similarly about atheists. “An atheistic American,” he said, “is a contradiction in terms.”

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