The Rev. George M. Docherty, who is credited with inspiring the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, died at his home on Thanksgiving. He was 97.
When a federal judge ruled the phrase unconstitutional in 2002, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette visited Docherty and he explained why he thought the pledge should honor God. The native Scotsman began with an exchange he had with his son:
“What did you do in school today?”
“Well,” second-grader Garth Docherty obliged, “we started with The Pledge of Allegiance.”
So, the junior Docherty repeated it for his father—the 1953 version, the next-to-the-current revision that read, in part, “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
“It struck me that it didn’t mention God,” George Docherty recounted yesterday from his home in Alexandria, Huntingdon County. “I was brought up in Scotland, and in Scotland, we sang, ‘God save our gracious king.’ It was everybody’s belief that God was part of society.”
George Docherty’s puzzlement might have died there.
But this was the Rev. George Macpherson Docherty. And the Rev. George Macpherson Docherty was three years into his pastorate of Washington, D.C.‘s New York Avenue Presbyterian Church—two blocks from the White House, the church attended by President Lincoln and frequented by his successors.
On the first Sunday in February 1954, a few months after the exchange with his son, Docherty raised the issue from the pulpit—with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the front pew of the 1,400-seat sanctuary.
In his sermon, Docherty reasoned that reciting the Pledge didn’t make nonbelievers profess a faith in God.
“He is pledging allegiance to a state, which through its founders, laws and culture, does as a matter of fact believe in the existence of God,” he said. “Without this phrase ‘under God,’ The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag might have been recited with similar sincerity by Muscovite children at the beginning of their school day.”
Afterward, according to Docherty, Eisenhower told him, “I think you’ve got something.”
The long story cut short: newspapers picked up the message and the Congressional Record reprinted the sermon in full.
And 4 1/2 months later, in a nation fretting at the Cold War and what they saw as godless communism, the Pledge officially was leavened to 31 words, with the addition of the phrase “under God” after “one nation.”