'Under God'

As Supreme Court weighs editing spirituality from the Pledge of Allegiance, we remember a Baltimore man's fighting words.

March 22, 2004|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

It's a pretty safe bet that Joseph J. Philbin's name will not be mentioned this week when the Supreme Court hears arguments in the case challenging the constitutionality of the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

But if he were alive today, Philbin would surely have something to say about the matter. He'd likely begin by reminding his fellow Baltimoreans that he had proposed the idea of adding "under God" to the pledge in 1952 - two years before President Eisenhower signed the congressional bill that made the change law on Flag Day 1954.

Philbin didn't go down in history as the originator of the "under God" clause, but the Baltimore man remained convinced until he died that he should have gotten credit for it.

"I can't leave my kids much but an honest name and thousands of friends, and I am going to battle right down the line for the privilege of leaving them this pledge," Philbin wrote to a Sun reporter in 1954, one of countless letters in his long campaign to claim what he saw as his place in American history.

In truth, Philbin, despite his passion, was actually not the first to propose the "under God" idea. According to pledge historian John W. Baer, that honor most likely goes to Louis A. Bowman, an Illinois man who swore in a 1955 affidavit that he recited the amended pledge - inspired by words "under God" in the Gettysburg Address - at a meeting of the Sons of the American Revolution in 1948.

More often credited with promoting the "under God" amendment are the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization. Members of the Knights' patriotic division were reciting the pledge with the words "under God" in it as early as 1951.

Others often credited for the change include the Rev. George M. Docherty, a Washington pastor who preached that without "under God," the pledge was missing "the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life," and U.S. Rep. Louis Rabaut of Michigan, who sponsored a 1953 House bill proposing the two-word amendment.

The Hearst newspaper chain also lobbied for the change. The fervor was a reflection of the times - what the New Yorker magazine described in a 2002 article as "a general outbreak of Cold War public piety" - that led to a joint congressional resolution being passed in the summer of 1954.

"It was in the air," said historian Baer. "There were so many groups pushing for [`under God'] ... I wouldn't be startled if you find a half dozen people taking credit for it."

But official history is one thing; local history quite another.

In all of Baltimore in those days - and for years to follow - there was likely no one who felt more strongly about "under God" than Joseph J. Philbin, a church-going, communist-despising, World War I veteran who proposed the idea of adding the words at a national convention of his veterans group - the 29th Division Association - in the summer of 1952.

Among the arguments in his resolution: "Now that the militant Red menace is abroad in our land, it behooves us to remind the free people of these United States that they are utterly at the mercy of God."

In fact, Philbin believed this reminder was so important that it should be placed at the very start of the pledge ("Under God, I pledge ...") instead of tucked between "one nation" and "indivisible," where it ended up.

Philbin's idea brought him no small amount of hometown attention. The newspapers published stories about his resolution. Local veterans groups endorsed it. Even Baltimore's mayor, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., supported the idea, agreeing to Philbin's proposal to have the city's new citizens recite the amended pledge at a ceremony in the fall of 1952.

In May 1954, a month before President Eisenhower signed the bill that he said would strengthen the "spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource," a draft of Philbin's 1952 resolution was published in the Congressional Record, submitted by Rep. George Fallon of Baltimore.

Wrote Fallon to Philbin: "I think you do deserve official recognition for your farsightedness in bringing up several years ago the proposal that the words `under God' be officially inserted in the Pledge of Allegiance. I hope my including it will give you and your organization nationwide recognition."

But this didn't turn out to be the case. In the context of a national movement, Philbin was a bit player. Still, the Baltimorean did his best to set the record straight, as he saw it - writing to newspapers, legislators and anyone he felt was wrongly getting credit for his idea.

It's all documented in the thick file folders full of correspondence that have been saved by Philbin's son, 77-year-old Jim Philbin.

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