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The Flag, the Pledge, and God

The recent court decision banning the use of the Pledge of Allegiance in some western states has forced us to understand our national past in a fresh way.

Simply put, American history is now divided into three parts.

From 1776 to 1882, Americas lived in what historians may soon term the Flag Period.

During this era of the American experiment, we held 26 presidential elections, added 39 states to the union and fought four wars. We freed the slaves and settled the West. Revival preachers ignited the Second Great Awakening and left the land cluttered with churches, especially of the Methodist, Baptist and Christian types.

The Flag Period of American history was a time of struggle and triumph, of national identity and continental expansion. But they were also years in which both the Flag and the people were without a Pledge; or to say it starkly, the nation had a Flag that had no Pledge.

In 1882 the era of the un-pledged Flag came to an end. A minister from New England wrote a short, simple affirmation: “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

National leaders inserted the words, “to the flag of the United States” and suggested that school children throughout the land repeat the pledge as a sign of civic responsibility.

Thus was inaugurated the Pledge Period of American history. A Flag is good; but a Pledge makes it better.

This era of the Pledged Flag endured for 72 years; through 18 elections to the highest office and 9 additions to the Union; through four wars and a depression; through the arrival of the automobile, the atomic bomb and wave upon wave of Catholic and Jewish immigrants.

They were good years, glory years, as the grand old Flag—now accompanied by a long-needed Pledge—found its way around the world, signaling with fresh and stirring power the expansion of American influence.

Yet something was missing. As wondrous as it was for a Flag to have a Pledge, people were anxious, and for good cause: the Flag had its Pledge, but the Pledge had no God.

What good, they reasoned to themselves and one another, is a Pledge that has no God?

What future, they asked in sermon and speech, has a country signaled by a Flag with a God-less Pledge?

What then came to pass in 1954 was the inauguration of what may be termed the God Period in American history. A congressional act installed God in the Pledge to the Flag: “one nation under God indivisible.” Two years later the deity was added to the currency in the phrase Congress declared to be the national motto: “In God We Trust.”

This innovation is now understood by political and social historians to have been a turning point in American history, a watershed of enormous social significance. The Flag, finally, had a Pledge; and the Pledge, at last, had a God.

For 48 years this God Pledged Flag has waved over the land of the free and the home of the brave. Much has happened: 10 presidents elected and two states admitted; military and metaphorical wars waged if not always won; drugs, sex and rock and roll endured; and an odd assortment of Pentecostals, Buddhists, Muslims and free-thinkers of every kind welcomed.

And now we stand at yet another crossroads in American history.

Judges decree; people complain, congress resolves, editors protest; consternation abounds. The future of the Flag, the Pledge and God is uncertain.

Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.