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One Nation “Under God”? Why the Latest Kerfuffle Matters


EDITORS’ NOTE: Filmmaker Ken Burns’s Learn the Address project has sparked controversy this week—specifically because President Obama recited a version of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address that omitted the words “under God.” Several conservative media outlets highlighted the omission—but, just as quickly, liberal media outlets mocked the “Right-Wing Noise Machine” for “fabricating” the story. Turns out the president simply read the draft of the speech Burns asked him to read: an early draft (the so-called Nicolay draft) that doesn’t include the phrase “under God.”

So end of story, right?

Actually, no. The truth is, as Princeton scholar Robert P. George shows in this essay, secular liberals often take refuge in saying they are citing an “early draft” of the Gettysburg Address that happens not to include “under God.” But we KNOW what Lincoln said at Gettysburg, because three separate reporters recorded his remarks—and all three transcriptions included “under God.” As George writes, “There isn’t really room for equivocation or evasion: Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—one of the founding texts of the American republic—expressly characterizes the United States as a nation under God.”

This essay comes from George’s acclaimed new book, Conscience and Its Enemies.


The Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and the Constitution of the United States of America—those were the three texts in the blue pamphlet I found on the table in front of me as I took my seat at a conference at Princeton.

On the cover was the logo of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, an influential organization whose board members include former New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse, controversial Obama judicial nominee Goodwin Liu, former New York governor Mario Cuomo, former solicitors general Drew Days and Walter Dellinger, and former attorney general Janet Reno. Before being appointed to the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan was a speaker at the society’s annual conventions in 2005, 2007, and 2008. And inside the pamphlet was a page saying, “The printing of this copy of the U.S. Constitution and of the nation’s two other founding texts, the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, was made possible through the generosity of Laurence and Carolyn Tribe.”

How nice, I thought. Here is a convenient, pocket-sized version of our fundamental documents, including Lincoln’s great oration at Gettysburg on republican government. Although some might question the idea that a speech given more than eighty years after the Declaration qualifies as a founding text, its inclusion seemed to me entirely appropriate. By preserving the Union, albeit at a nearly incalculable cost in lives and suffering, Lincoln completed, in a sense, the American Founding. Victory at Gettysburg really did ensure that government “by the people” and “for the people”—republican government—would not “perish from the earth.”

I recalled that in sixth grade I was required to memorize the address, and as I held the American Constitution Society’s pamphlet in my hands, I wondered whether I could still recite it from memory. So I began, silently reciting: “Four score and seven years ago . . . ,” until I reached “the world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” Then I drew a blank. So I opened the pamphlet and read the final paragraph:

It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

Deeply moving—but, I thought, something isn’t right. Did you notice what was omitted? What’s missing is Lincoln’s description of the United States as a nation under God. What Lincoln actually said at Gettysburg was: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” The American Constitution Society had omitted Lincoln’s reference to the United States as a nation under God from the address he gave at the dedication of the burial ground at Gettysburg.

At the time, staring at the text, I wondered whether it was an innocent, inadvertent error. It seemed more likely, though, that here is the apex of the secularist ideology that has attained a status not unlike that of religious orthodoxy among liberal legal scholars and political activists. Nothing is sacred, as it were—not even the facts of American history, not even the words spoken by Abraham Lincoln at the most solemn ceremony of our nation’s history.

When the atheist Michael Newdow was challenging in court the inclusion of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, he and his supporters pointed out that the words were not in the original pledge created in the 1920s. Congress added them in the 1950s in the midst of the Cold War, in response to a campaign led by the Catholic men’s organization the Knights of Columbus. The words were introduced into the pledge to highlight the profound difference between the United States, whose political system is founded on the theistic proposition that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and the atheistic premises of Soviet Marxism.

What Newdow and his supporters avoided mentioning is that the pledge’s words under God were not pulled from a sermon by Billy Graham or a papal encyclical. They were taken from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The pledge, as amended, simply quotes one of our nation’s founding texts.

This fact is more than a little inconvenient for those who hold that government must be neutral not only among competing traditions of religious faith but also between religion and atheism—or, as it is sometimes put, “between religion and irreligion.” The constitutional basis for their claim is the religion clause of the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” They allege that these words were intended to forbid such things as descriptions of America as a nation “under God” in official government documents because the Founders sought “strict separation” of church and state.

But this puts the American Constitution Society in a sticky position. In assembling its pamphlet, the society was eager to include Lincoln as a Founder—the author of one of America’s founding documents, the Gettysburg Address. But the Great Emancipator’s characterization of the United States as a nation under God appears to undermine the strict separationism that the American Constitution Society wishes to promote. What to do?

The answer the society hit on was simply to make Lincoln’s inconvenient words disappear. Now you are thinking: how did this group imagine it could get away with that? The Gettysburg Address is the opposite of an obscure document. Millions of Americans can recite it by heart.

Well, here the plot thickens. First, the society knows that it gets a certain level of immunity because its liberal secularist viewpoint is overwhelmingly the viewpoint of American legal academics and, indeed, academics generally. Even if the society were to be exposed, it would not be treated the way, say, the conservative Federalist Society would be treated if caught altering historical documents for ideological reasons. Second, the society knew that in a pinch it could muddy the waters by asserting that, in fact, five copies of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s hand exist, and two of them do not include the words “under God.”

But that won’t wash. The two drafts not containing the words are known as the Nicolay draft and the Hay draft. They are held in the Library of Congress. The other three, all containing the words, are known as the Everett, Bancroft, and Bliss copies. The Everett copy is held in the Illinois State Historical Society Library in Springfield. The Bancroft is in the Kroch Library at Cornell University. The Bliss is on display at the White House.

The Bliss copy is generally regarded as the authoritative one, mainly because it is the last—and the only one to which Lincoln attached his signature. The Nicolay draft is thought to be the earliest. It gets its name from the custodian of Lincoln’s papers, John Nicolay, one of the president’s private secretaries. The Hay draft was found about forty years after Lincoln’s death among the papers of John Hay, Lincoln’s other private secretary. It seems to have the greatest number of deviations from the other drafts and from what Lincoln is known to have said at Gettysburg. The Everett copy was sent to Edward Everett by Lincoln at Everett’s request in 1864. (Everett was the famed orator who was actually the main speaker at the Gettysburg ceremony the day Lincoln spoke.) The Bancroft copy got its name because Lincoln produced it for George Bancroft, a historian and secretary of the navy. The Bliss copy is named for the publisher Alexander Bliss, Bancroft’s stepson.

Of course, none of these copies is actually the Gettysburg Address. The Gettysburg Address is the set of words Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg. As it happens, we know what those words are. (The Bliss copy nearly perfectly reproduces them.) Three entirely independent reporters, including a reporter for the Associated Press, telegraphed their transcriptions of Lincoln’s remarks to their editors immediately after the president spoke. All three transcriptions include the words “under God,” and no contemporaneous report omits them. There isn’t really room for equivocation or evasion: Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—one of the founding texts of the American republic—expressly characterizes the United States as a nation under God.

I was clearly not the first to notice the omission. When I went to the American Constitution Society’s website, I found that the version of the pamphlet available as a PDF download on the American Constitution Society’s website had been amended to introduce the words “Hay Draft,” albeit with no explanation of its meaning, as a subtitle for the Gettysburg Address. This tail-covering maneuver makes the society’s intellectual dishonesty manifest. It is now impossible to suppose that the society’s presentation of the Hay draft as the actual Gettysburg Address was an innocent error—the product, one might otherwise have thought, of a summer intern’s overly hasty Internet search for the text of Lincoln’s remarks at Gettysburg. The society’s decision to exclude the words from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address must have been deliberate.

In short, a liberal legal advocacy organization omitted the words “under God” from a document the group characterizes as a founding text, this in the context of debates over the role of religion in American public life and the meaning of the Constitution’s provisions pertaining to religion. These groups know exactly what they are doing, and, to achieve the result they want, they are willing to violate scholarly consensus, common sense, and the memorization of generations of schoolchildren.

Perhaps the American Constitution Society can provide some evidence to show that it did not have an ideological purpose in omitting words that, if included in a founding text, are so damaging to liberal orthodoxy on church-state issues. If so, we can look forward to a correction of the pamphlet’s text on the society’s website and in the next edition. We might then send the pamphlet, with the American Constitution Society’s imprimatur, to the Supreme Court for its consideration when another case like Michael Newdow’s reaches the justices.
Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and author of Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Secular Liberalism, from which this essay is adapted.



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