On January 16, 1786, Thomas Jefferson's "Statute for Religious Freedom" was enacted into Virginia state law. The new law, which guaranteed freedom of religion to people of all faiths, later became the basis for the Constitution's establishment clause, and was one of the three accomplishments Jefferson felt enough pride in to put on his own tombstone. (He didn't even mention his presidency!) To this day, January 16 is still observed as Religious Freedom Day in the United States, but does that mean everything you think you know about church and state is God's own truth? It does not! Let Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings bless your souls with a little knowledge from on high.
The Debunker: Has the Pledge of Allegiance Always Name-Checked God?
The Pledge of Allegiance seems like such a deeply ingrained part of America's national myth—right up there with Betsy Ross, the Constitution, and "The Star-Spangled Banner"—that many people are surprised to learn that no American ever had to hear or say it for the first century of the nation's history. It's a surprisingly recent invention, newer than the telephone or the ballpoint pen.
The Pledge of Allegiance was dreamed up in 1892 by a Boston-based children's magazine called The Youth's Companion, which was selling American flags to schoolhouses as both a show of patriotism and a tempting magazine subscription premium. To goose sales, the magazine hired a socialist minister named Francis Bellamy to write a catchy little classroom pledge that would encourage flag-buying, and rolled it out just in time for a big October celebration that year, the 400th anniversary of Columbus's first landing. That's right: the Pledge of Allegiance was originally written to celebrate Columbus Day, of all things.
But Bellamy's original Pledge of Allegiance, which gradually caught on in American schoolrooms over the next sixty years, was missing one modern flashpoint: the "under God" clause. For decades, millions of God-fearing Americans finished the pledge by saying "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all," never imagining that they were pawns in a creeping wave of secularism. The "under God" clause was shoehorned into the last sentence in the 1950s, when a Presbyterian minister lobbied President Eisenhower to make the change. "In God We Trust" was also made an official national motto and added to U.S. currency around this time, and it's easy to see these moves as responses to the fear of an atheist Soviet Union at the beginning of the Cold War. And hey, forty years later, communism collapsed utterly—so I guess it worked!
Quick Quiz: God is never mentioned in the Constitution, but in the Declaration of Independence, when God appears to endow people with their "unalienable rights," Thomas Jefferson uses what word for the Almighty?
Ken Jennings is the author of twelve books, most recently Planet Funny and co-hosts the most important podcast in human history, Omnibus. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.