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Minister reprises 'under God' sermon

Pledge of Allegiance flap brings him back

Monday, August 19, 2002

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Nobody would have faulted the Rev. George Docherty had he begged out of donning his black cassock and delivering a 25-minute sermon yesterday in a sweltering, packed sanctuary.

The Rev. George Docherty -- "To omit the words 'under God' is to omit the definitive character of the American way of life." (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

His best excuse: He's 91.

But he was born and raised a Scotsman. That's probably what helped make him a stubborn 91-year-old.

"George is the proverbial race horse," friend Robert Stewart said. "He always has a race left in him."

So, yesterday morning, before the 400-some people who filled Huntingdon Presbyterian Church -- a multitude the church doesn't see but for Easter and Christmas Eve -- this regal, broad-shouldered Scotsman reprised his 1954 sermon that helped to plug the phrase "under God" into the Pledge of Allegiance.

Back then, it was a sermon he delivered as pastor of the landmark New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. -- the powerful in attendance, President Dwight Eisenhower in a front pew.

This time, in the wake of a stayed federal appeals court ruling that "under God" makes the pledge unconstitutional, Docherty's audience was in the Huntingdon County church he began attending when he retired to rural Central Pennsylvania a decade-and-a-half ago.

"To omit the words 'under God' is to omit the definitive character of the American way of life," Docherty, a hale voice with a hearty brogue, read.

"What the Declaration [of Independence] says, in effect, is that no state church shall exist in this land. This is separation of church and state. It is not and never was meant to be a separation of religion and life."

Click to download a 1.30 MB file in pdf format of a sermon delivered by Rev. George Docherty that helped to plug the phrase "under God" into the Pledge of Allegiance. It is 10 pages long, including the minister's hand-written notes in the margins. He has delivered the 25 minute sermon three times, the original sermon in 1952, on Feb. 7, 1954 and Aug. 18, 2002. You must have Adobe Acrobat Reader, available as a free download from Adobe

In early Cold War America, rattled by what its leaders portrayed as godless communism, the Knights of Columbus, with support from such entities as the American Legion and Hearst Newspapers, waged a protracted, high profile campaign to include "under God" in the pledge.

Docherty's 1954 sermon, which actually had debuted to a different audience and minimal effect two years earlier, gave the movement a stiff push forward. Wire services carried accounts of what Eisenhower heard in church that day, the sermon was copied into the Congressional Record, and portions of the service turned up on movie theater newsreels.

Docherty, a self-effacing man, wasn't wanting for recognition. He was successor to the eminent Peter Marshall at New York Avenue Presbyterian; he would become a compatriot to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. of Selma, Ala., and associate of such clergy as the Rev. Billy Graham.

But the "under God" sermon drew reaction immediately -- Docherty was asked for 2,000 copies of his sermon right afterward and the movement to add the words to the pledge surged forward.

Furor over the pledge erupted anew in June when a three-judge appeals panel of the 11-member 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco threatened to undo the success of that movement when it ruled unconstitutional the words "under God" inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. The decision has been stayed, pending appeal.

"There was something missing in this pledge," Docherty preached yesterday, "and that which was missing was the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life. Indeed, apart from the phrase 'the United States of America,' this could be the pledge of any republic. In fact, I could hear little Muscovites repeat a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag with equal solemnity."

"If we were to add the words 'under the church,' that would be dangerous. ... It must be 'under God' to include the great Jewish community and the people of the Moslem faith and the myriad of denominations of Christians in the land. ... What then of the honest atheist? ... He cannot deny the Christian revelation and logically live by the Christian ethic, and if he denies the Christian ethic, he falls short of the American ideal of life."

Partly because he says his memory has faltered and partly to stay true to the 1954 sermon, Docherty read entirely from his text, discarding chances to display his easy wit -- such as when he wagged a chastening finger at a sagging microphone holder and implored, "Get out of the way, now."

Sometimes, an intent congregation had to fish out words hidden in Docherty's brogue or caught under the whoosh of fans running at full bore just to keep room temperature near 80.

"But it was a wonderful sermon," said retired physician John Hewlett, who drove from Hershey to hear friend Docherty.

"We're a nation under God," said Pat Kepler, who came 26 miles from State College when she heard that Docherty was going to offer his 1954 sermon anew. "I believe it more after hearing him."

On a summer Sunday morning, Huntingdon Presbyterian is satisfied to draw 100 worshippers to its 126-year-old brick church, a landmark whose 30-foot spire towers over this mellow county seat.

It was pastor Richard Gardiner who made the decision that nearly turned yesterday's service into a standing-room-only affair. He resolved, in the wake of the June court ruling, that the 1954 sermon would have an encore, even if he had to read the text to the congregation himself.

One doesn't, after all, burden a 91-year-old man who's been through heart bypass surgery, even if, by all appearances, he's robust. And this 91-year-old man already figured that he had made his farewell appearance with a sermon two years ago in the New York Avenue Presbyterian pulpit.

"But George said, 'No, I'll do it.' He definitely wanted to do it," said his wife, school teacher Sue Docherty.

"It took a little courage," he said. "But it's a wonderful experience, to see so many faces looking up at you."

In the aftermath, Docherty pronounced himself "a little tired," said he expects "under God" to remain in the pledge, but allowed that, either way, he's probably made his last stand in the pulpit.

But maybe he'd like to write a book, he said, maybe something about experiences in the clergy as instruction to fledgling preachers.

"When he's determined he's going to do something," Hewlett said, "he'll do it."

Tom Gibb can be reached at tgibb@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.

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