With Liberty and Justice, and Mercy, for All


When was the last time we recited the Pledge of Allegiance? Is there a better month than July, as we celebrate our independence, to meditate on the 31 words in this brief but powerful promise?

Not Always 31 Words

This year the United States turns 240 but, in its present form, the Pledge is only 62 years old. The history of this oath is quite captivating, particularly from a Catholic perspective. The original script, penned by Colonel George Balch in 1887, focused on God and unity. He wrote: We give our heads and hearts to God and our country; one country, one language, one flag! His emphasis on a common tongue is especially intriguing since we can document 176 separate languages spoken by students in the New York City school system alone!

Francis Bellamy took Balch's idea but excluded any mention of God from his own 1892 rendition of the Pledge, which Congress officially adopted in 1942. Most of the credit for putting God back into our Pledge goes to the Knights of Columbus. This powerful Catholic fraternity worked tirelessly from 1951 to have the phrase “under God” included.

In his Feb. 7, 1954 sermon, which he based on the Gettysburg Address and delivered in the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in D.C., Rev. George MacPherson Docherty bolstered the Knights' campaign by stating that our strength as a people did not rest in weapons but in our striving for a higher purpose. He argued that the sentiments of the Pledge of Allegiance, as it was written at that time, could be attributed to any homeland. He declared that what was missing and what set the United States apart from everyone else was a special characteristic of the American way of life, namely Lincoln's words “under God” at Gettysburg.

Serendipitously, President Eisenhower was sitting in Lincoln's old pew while Docherty was speaking. The very next day he acted on the preacher's suggestion and persuaded Charles Oakman, a Representative from Michigan, to introduce such a proposal. Subsequently Congress passed the necessary bill, which the president immediately signed into law and on June 14, 1954, the phrase “under God” was incorporated into the Pledge of Allegiance. Eisenhower said that this legislation would reaffirm “the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty…(so that we can) constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource, in peace or in war.”

Relevance for Today

How relevant is this concept of pledging allegiance? Obviously some loyalties are serious while others are not. Is wearing a logo ball cap a sign of allegiance? It might be if we enthusiastically support the team. However, this past winter I wore a Daytona Bike Week hat, not because I'm devoted to the Hells Angels motorcycle club but because my head was cold. Nevertheless, there are occasions when declaring affiliation is severe enough to be a matter of national security.

Last month, for example, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal referenced the words pledge and allegiance more than a dozen times when reporting about the Orlando gunman responsible for the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. Since pledging allegiance was also prominent in the terrorist attacks preceding this Florida massacre, the idea of having such an oath is certainly relevant today. Given the current global tensions, it seems most appropriate that we Americans should spend more quality time reflecting on this declaration to God and to our country.

Year of Mercy

During this third quarter of our Holy Year, we might also consider how the virtue of mercy stands shoulder to shoulder with the proclamation of liberty and justice contained in our Pledge of Allegiance. It is mercy that removes the blindfold from the eyes of Lady Justice. It is mercy that gives her the grace of God's vision to see her weighing scales clearly and to balance them with the dynamics of human emotions and extenuating circumstances. It is mercy that guides her decision about whether to raise her protective sword with the strength of an Archangel Michael or to scabbard her blade with the wisdom of a King Solomon. Justice without this mercy would lead our republic toward tyranny and away from the compassionate liberty, which we cherish for all.

For Holy Homework: Let's often recite, and as often give thanks, for the precious gift which the Creator of the universe has bestowed on us as we say: I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

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