Essay Read By Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner
“One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”[i]
As most Americans know, our pledge to the American flag concludes with those words; where did that phrase come from?
We owe a minister named Francis Bellamy for the original inspiration for our pledge. Bellamy went to work for a Boston-based magazine: Youth’s Companion[ii] which was published from 1827–1929, an impressive 102-year run. Bellamy’s pledge was not exactly what we recite today: it originally read “my flag” without saying whose or what nation’s flag was the object of the pledge. That was rectified in 1932 when “of the United States of America” was substituted.
The phrase “under God” was added in 1954 by an act of Congress[iii] at the urging of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was responding to citizen petitions.
Is America in fact “one nation under God?” Well, certainly we are – in one respect we cannot not be; the sovereign God overlooks our affairs whether we would like Him to or not, whether we acknowledge his presence or not, whether we worship Him or ignore Him. In that sense the phrase is true and will always be true. But let’s pick the phrase apart a bit.
There is disagreement on this point today,[iv] some arguing that America is a country and/or a federation or union of sovereign states, and not a nation. Some point to the fact that the word “union” appears six times in the Constitution; “foreign nations” and “the law of nations” are the only use of the word “nation” and neither refers directly to the United States. But the evidence is strong that the most prominent of America’s Founding Fathers considered us a true nation.
After the Constitution went into effect with the ninth ratification, various Founding Fathers did refer to “the Union” in speeches and letters, but they frequently used the word “nation” as well.
Alexander Hamilton compared us with “other nations” almost incessantly as Washington’s Secretary of State. But his boss used the word nearly as much. In fact, George Washington can rightfully be called one of the strongest nationalists of the founding era.
Even before the Constitution was ratified, Washington, as a private citizen albeit a celebrated one, wrote a circular letter to the Governors of the several states. He ended the letter by stating:
“I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection; that he would incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government; to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow citizens of the United States at large; and, particularly, for their brethren who have served in the field; and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacifick temper of the mind, which were the characteristicks of the divine Author of our blessed religion; without an humble imitation of whose example, …, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.”[v]
In his first inaugural address, drafted by his friend and new Congressman, James Madison, Washington said:
“No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.”[vi]
In his first Thanksgiving Proclamation as President, Washington began by insisting that “it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favors.” Wouldn’t it be fitting and proper to read President Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation each year at church on that holiday?
To a Jewish congregation in Savannah, Georgia, President Washington wrote:
that Jehovah God, who had delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian Oppressors … has been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent Nation.”[vii]
There is no doubt America’s Founding Fathers viewed us as “a nation under God;” and for them, that meant the God of the Bible. Donald Lutz, professor of political science at the University of Houston, reports: “Scholars in recent years seem to have forgotten the degree to which religious ideas permeated the political world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”[xii]
Carl Sandburg, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and author, once wrote: “When a nation goes down, or a society perishes, one condition may always be found; they forgot where they came from. They lost sight of what had brought them along.”[xiii]
I’ll conclude with the words of Ronald Reagan, who said: “If we ever forget we are one nation under God, we will be a nation gone under.”[xiv]
The United States can never be a nation that is not “under God.” We can either be a nation that acknowledges that fact and seeks God’s superintending care, one that humbly asks God to heal our land,[xv] or we can be a nation that insists on going it alone. The choice is ours.
Gary Porter is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative (CLI), a project to promote a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution by the American people. CLI provides seminars on the Constitution, including one for young people utilizing “Our Constitution Rocks” as the text. Gary presents talks on various Constitutional topics, writes periodic essays published on several different websites, and appears in period costume as James Madison, explaining to public and private school students “his” (i.e., Madison’s) role in the creation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Gary can be reached at email@example.com, on Facebook or Twitter (@constitutionled).
[viii] James Madison, Federalist #46: “Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of.”
[ix] Thomas Jefferson, Notes in the State of Virginia: “God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift from God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that His justice cannot sleep forever.”
[x] James Wilson, Remarks at the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention, November 26, 1787: “Governments, in general, have been the result of force, of fraud, and accident. After a period of 6,000 years has elapsed since the creation, the United States exhibit to the world the first instance…of a nation…assembling voluntarily…and deciding calmly concerning that system of government under which they would wish that they and their posterity should live.”
[xi] John Jay, Federalists #2: “As a nation we have made peace and war; as a nation we have vanquished our common enemies; as a nation we have formed alliances, and made treaties, and entered into various compacts and conventions with foreign states.”
[xii] Donald S. Lutz and Jack Warren, A Covenanted People; The Religious Tradition and the Origins of American Constitutionalism. 1987.
[xv] See: 2 Chronicles 7:14.