God at the Inauguration

By Jeffrey Weiss

Religion was as unavoidable as dressing on a tossed salad during the public ceremonies of President Barack Obama's second inaugural.

We got the Battle Hymn of the Republic, including the verse about Christ "who has died to make men holy, let us die to make them free."

We got Obama's speech itself. The president mentioned God six times: The Creator who bestows unalienable rights. Freedom is a gift from God. In God's eyes we're all equal. God commanded us to care for our planet. The presidential oath is given to "God and country." And the standard hope for God's future blessings on the nation.

There was the benediction by the Rev. Luis Leon, an Episcopal priest. A generic bit of faith-suffused hopefulness, with a well-worn quote from Micah as the most specific religiosity in it.

And then there was the inaugural invocation, given for the first time by someone not ordained clergy. Civil rights pioneer Myrlie Evers-Williams was actually more theologically specific than the Episcopal priest: She offered her prayer "in Jesus' name" -- and also in "the name of all who are holy and right."

She had this passage: "We now stand beneath the shadow of the nation's Capitol whose golden dome reflects the unity and democracy of one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Is there something missing in that sentence for you? There surely was for a commenter on the transcript on the Washington Post website:

"I can't believe she left out 'Under God'. She'll probably say it was a mistake! Yeah right!"

Funny thing about that.

The commenter was, of course, referring to Evers-Williams borrowing language from the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. Which these days inserts "under God" between "one nation" and "indivisible." But Evers-Williams is apparently what legal scholars might call a strict constructionalist about the pledge. She was quoting it in the original.

The pledge has an interesting history that most schoolkids who mouth their daily oath to "Richard Stands" never know or think about. Our nation managed somehow for most of its history without any official pledge.

As the FOX News web page on the history of the pledge starts out: "The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister in Boston who was prominent in the Christian Socialist movement of the time."

According to a summary of Bellamy's papers prepared in 1953 by the University of Rochester:

"The growing liberality of his views and their incompatibility with the more rigid Baptist theology of his time caused Bellamy eventually to feel it his duty to leave the ministry altogether. Accordingly, in the spring of 1891, he resigned his pastorate and entered the field of journalism."

Not so conservative, eh?

Some historians say that Bellamy created the pledge to help mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus's voyage to this continent. Which I'll admit doesn't make a ton 'o sense, since that event is not mentioned in his original wording:

"I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Over the years, the pledge was amended. The word "to" was inserted before "the republic" just because it sounds better. The "my flag" was shifted to "the flag of the United States." And then to "the flag of the United States of America."

Congress didn't make the national pledge legally official until 1942. But neither the preacher who wrote the pledge nor the subsequent friendly amenders nor the solons of the legislature added any note of religion until 1954. Why did it happen then?

The FOX News history says it was done "under pressure from the Knights of Columbus and other religious groups." Which is more an answer to "who?" than "why?"

The Independence Hall Association in Philadelphia says the addition was "in response to the Communist threat of the times." Which pushes back the "why?" to "why would the threat of Communism demand that God needed to be added to the pledge?"

The website ReligiousTolerance.org offers more explanation:

"Rev. George Docherty (1911 - 2008) preached a sermon that was attended by President Eisenhower and the national press corps on 1954-FEB-7. His sermon said in part:

'Apart from the mention of the phrase 'the United States of America,' it could be the pledge of any republic. In fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag in Moscow.'"

At which point Eisenhower suggested that Congress add the religious language. And in the Red-fearing 1950s, he apparently didn't need to suggest it twice.

What does any of this have to do with 2013 and Obama's inaugural?

The little Muscovites' Communism has long been consigned to the dustbin of history. The most violent external threat to America these days is one with its own religious face, a threat that cites its beliefs in God for its own purposes. And in any case, Evers-Williams was delivering an invocation, not pledging to the flag.

It's not likely the Almighty felt slighted by the proceedings anyway. If he's the sort of deity who keeps score by the number of mentions, he knows that he wasn't exactly ignored.

Jeffrey Weiss is a RealClearReligion columnist from Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyWeissRCR.

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