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Pledging to God

George M. Docherty, the Washington, D.C., pastor credited with helping to insert the phrase "under God" in the United States' Pledge of Allegiance, died of a heart ailment Thanksgiving day at the age of 97. Originally from Scotland, Docherty served for 26 years as pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, the historic downtown church attended by Abraham Lincoln and many other presidents.

In 1952, Docherty heard his 7-year-old son recite the pledge—which he was unfamiliar with at the time—and decided to preach a sermon urging that the pledge to the flag be amended. "To omit the words 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance is to omit the definitive factor in the American way of life," he said, adding that the Godless pledge was just as applicable to the then-communist Soviet Union. "I could hear little Muscovites recite a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag with equal solemnity."

His original sermon did little to change things. But on Feb. 7, 1954, with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in attendance, Docherty repeated his message—only this time with near-instant results. Congress introduced a bill that same week, and Eisenhower signed the "under God" act four months later.

In his later years, Docherty addressed those who criticized the inclusion of God's name in the pledge as a violation of church-and-state separation. He believed the phrase "under God" was broad enough to include "the great Jewish community and the people of the Muslim faith," yet he pulled no punches when it came to atheists. "An atheistic American is a contradiction in terms," Docherty said in his sermon. "If you deny the Christian ethic, you fall short of the American ideal of life." [washingtonpost.com, 11/30/08; AP, 11/31/08]

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