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How the Pledge got God

Minister, now 91, gave Ike the idea one Sunday morning

Friday, June 28, 2002

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

ALEXANDRIA, Pa. -- He was a Scotsman come to America, just 3 1/2 years removed from his homeland. So, unlike his schoolboy son, George Docherty didn't have The Pledge of Allegiance stamped deep in memory.

The Rev. George Macpherson Docherty, 91, proposed inserting the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance to President Eisenhower in February 1954. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

As Docherty recalls it almost 49 years hence, the exchange between father and son, went something like this:

"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."

Yesterday, Docherty said he was not fazed by the news that rattled Congress and raised ire cross-country: that a federal appellate judge said the phrase made the Pledge unconstitutional.

He's 91 now. Time has turned his remaining hair and his bushy eyebrows white.

Age and a heart bypass have taken the edge off his memory and made him a touch unsteady on his feet, he says. And it's stolen a bit from a robust frame that once topped 6 feet.

But it hasn't robbed a gentle but Scotch-stubborn optimism.

"It will be confirmed, reaffirmed, the use of the words 'under God,'" Docherty said in his easy Glasgow brogue. "It may take some time ... but there's no problem.

"And that was only San Francisco."

Docherty said that the phrase should not be offensive to followers of any religion because it's a one-word-fits-all phrase.

"This is a nation built on the principle that there is a God, but it doesn't define it," Docherty said. "It could be the Christian God. It could be the Judeo God. It could be the Buddhan god, it could the Mohammedan God. But it's built on a vertical relationship with God."

Docherty wasn't the first to offer the idea. The Knights of Columbus long lobbied for God getting a mention in the Pledge.

But it was from his Washington pulpit -- where he could put a word in the ear of the powerful -- that Docherty crystallized the movement.

Docherty and his wife, Sue, who teaches fourth grade across the road at Juniata Valley Elementary School, live in a comfortable home, looking out on mountains and cornfields, a universe from where George Docherty preached to presidents and lawmakers.

The messages weren't benign.

He was a civil rights advocate and marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala. He opposed the war in Vietnam.

He offered spirituality to a congregation in which then-Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski, a Presbyterian elder, shared the sanctuary with President Richard Nixon.

In his sermons, Docherty said, he'd line off the moral playing field.

"And I'd let them deduce," he said.

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