The Meaning of 'One Nation Under God'

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The Meaning of 'One Nation Under God'

One nation under God” is a phrase that almost every American has heard at one point in their life. The phrase is an integral part of the Pledge of Allegiance, a renowned expression of loyalty to the country. To this day, the Pledge of Allegiance is still recited in many public schools throughout the country. 

What most people don’t know about, though, is the deep historical context behind the phrase “One Nation Under God.” There have been a multitude of great political figures in history to influence this phrase and its adoption. 

In this article, we hope to inform readers of the true meaning behind the phrase and why it is so important to our nation’s roots. At Printed Kicks, we are committed to keeping these classic American traditions alive and remembering the heroic efforts of our forefathers. 

History of the Pledge

Most Americans are taught the pledge in grade school. The pledge originated in the Civil War. Col. George Balch, an officer at the time who instructed at West Point, worked for the public school system after his military career. There, he focused on creating rituals for the kids to perform to promote patriotism. Through this job, the Pledge of Allegiance was born. 

The first version of the pledge stated, “I give my heart and my hand to my country — one country, one language, one flag.” In 1954, under the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, an extra phrase was added to the end of it: “under God.”

In the Rev. Bellemy’s Youth Companion book, where the first version of the pledge was found, the ritual taught that, upon reaching the word “flag” in the pledge, students should “extend the right hand gracefully, palm upward, toward the flag, and remain in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.”

This part of the ritual existed until World War II when it was removed because of its similarity to the Nazi salute. It was adjusted to place the right hand over the heart. This gesture is an ode to the fallen soldiers that fought so hard for our freedoms and made the creation of this great nation possible. 

The Declaration

The sentiment behind the phrase, “One Nation Under God,” was inspired by the efforts of Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Founding Fathers, who knew that the government should not grant the rights of man. Instead, these were inherently given through an entity more powerful than themselves. They established that our freedom is a natural right that no one could barricade. As stated in the Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” namely life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are the tenants on which the United States was founded and what still holds this country strong to the day. No president or congress member can grant us our rights. These rights are unalienable and given to us at birth. The phrase “One Nation Under God” exemplifies this message. 

The Gettysburg Address

Abraham Lincoln was another historical political figure that understood the necessity of granting citizens their natural rights. He believed that the unity and freedom of the country were dependent on these rights. In the Gettysburg Address, during a long and grueling civil war, Lincoln made this belief abundantly clear, using the exact phrase, "nation, under God." 

He began the address by referring to the God-given rights that the Founding Fathers had already established. 

He resolutely stated that 87 years before his time, the revolutionaries “brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

This first section of the address acted as an honest assessment of the nation, basically stating that the Civil War was a test of whether freedom was possible. 

As Lincoln concluded his speech, providing a glimpse of hope into the future with an uplifting vision. At the end of the address, he stressed that the United States government should and would be made up of US citizens and existed to serve the people of this great nation. 

This part of the address served as inspiration for what would become the Pledge of Allegiance years later. At one of the tensest and uncertain stages of the country’s inception, this message is what prevailed. This hope for a better future, where all individuals are equal, is what drove the northern colonies to victory.

Religious Aspect

The phrase “One Nation Under God” has even deeper origins. 

As a nation that was literally built on the pursuit of religious freedom, America has always prided itself on allowing its people to express themselves religiously any way they want to. The phrase “One Nation Under God” is not an oath to a single spiritual entity; rather, it is a proclamation of freedom, stating that the right of the individual is inherited at birth, not granted by the government.  

Under British rule during the colonial era, America was bound to the rules and regulations of their government. This phrase was created in the spirit of the nation’s new Constitution and Bill of Rights, celebrating democracy. Essentially, it is an affirmation of the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that the Declaration of Independence guarantees. It does not instate a formal religion within the government. 

Ultimately, the phrase does not carry any religious undertones. In this situation, the word “God” can be interpreted in any way the reader chooses to, as a spiritual entity or as a metaphorical figure. America has always stood for the freedom of all religious groups. In no way does this phrase take away from that sentiment. 

I Have a Dream Speech

Another event that further cements this phrase into American history is Martin Luther King Jr.’s legendary "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. In his speech, Martin Luther King Jr. offered his vision of an equal nation, where all people, of any race, are treated the same. He also refers to the Declaration of Independence, which promises these rights. 

“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir…I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”

Not only does the phrase “One Nation Under God” carry weight in the birth of America, but also in its reform. The phrase has historical ties as recent as the Civil Rights movement, where its message was desperately needed.  

Conclusion

“One nation under God” is a phrase that still holds immense power, even to this day. The foundation of our country was built upon these words, as well as many others. There is a reason this expression is still recited in public schools all around the country. And it will probably continue to be recited for years to come. 

Every single day, over 60 million students recite the Pledge of Allegiance with this phrase included, along with thousands of individuals at meetings for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the American Legion, as well as several other fraternal and patriotic organizations. 

Most people who recite the pledge are not fully aware of its origin and historical context. However, it is important to know why we perform certain routines and why we need to preserve these traditions. Our nation is one of the few in the entire world to have a formal pledge, along with our flag. 

“One Nation Under God” is a centerpiece of patriotism in America. It is a call for unity, a commitment to maintaining freedom for every single citizen. Every individual is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This dedication to liberty is what makes America what it is: the greatest nation in the world. 

At Printed Kicks, we work hard to keep these important American symbols alive. We carry t-shirts, hats, decals, flags, and other accessories with the classic “One Nation Under God” phrase printed on them. If you’re looking for a sleek, stylish way to celebrate our country’s roots, consider checking out our online store! 

 

Sources

Rept. 107-659 - TO REAFFIRM THE REFERENCE TO ONE NATION UNDER GOD IN THE PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE | Congress.gov

The Origin and Meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance | FFRF 

'I Have A Dream' Speech, In Its Entirety | NPR


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