12 February 2012

Under God

Back in January, Kevin Kruse penned an op-ed for the Gray Lady on the 20th-century rise in American usage of "under God" with various prefixed words. It's an idea I'm generally sympathetic to (i.e., that many things that pass under the mantle of tradition aren't really traditional and in particular this emphasis on America as a Godly nation), but is the language part true? Kruse has written a book on the general subject, so I'm not going to try to tackle the whole thing, but what about some of these factual claims on usage? I think there might be some data the uninitiated among us could look at.

What exactly does Kruse claim in the NYT piece? First:
After Lincoln, however, the phrase ["this nation, under God"] disappeared from political discourse for decades. But it re-emerged in the mid-20th century...
and this:
Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, Mr. Fifield and his allies advanced a new blend of conservative religion, economics and politics that one observer aptly anointed “Christian libertarianism.” Mr. Fifield distilled his ideology into a simple but powerful phrase — “freedom under God.”
then this:
Indeed, in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower presided over the first presidential prayer breakfast on a “government under God” theme
and finally:
In 1954, as this “under-God consciousness” swept the nation
So where could we go to check up on all this? Google n-grams! This is a nice little service from the king of data mining himself (corporately speaking) that let's you look for phrases in book corpora. This won't get us everything, but it will get us a lot. So what is there?

First let's look at Ike's phrase of "government under God." Not one I was familiar with, but I wasn't around in 1953 either, so perhaps no surprise. I'm going to look in the corpus of American (not British) books for the entire period Google makes available. Here's the result at right.

Hmmm. Those early years give large results, but since there's nothing in between that and the later occurrences, I'm going to cut those years out of the next one. Now what do we have? Well, clearly a rise around 1953, as Kruse suggests, but the rise actually begins a bit earlier (which you can see by zooming in on the n-gram), and not just in spurious hits that this service sometimes finds, like "government under God's..." (because it pays attention to capitalization, but not punctuation, for some reason): there's even a book called, yep, Government Under God. So, sure, that's a phrase we might reasonably associate with Ike's usage, but it sure wasn't original to him.

How about "freedom under God," another phrase tied with a particular person? The first search shows nothing before the late 19th century, so let's zoom in on the period after 1850. Now there's a clear rise in 1941, following some decades of fairly minimal usage. Here too there's a book entitled with the phrase, this time by Bishop Sheen. Since books might take a little time to write and publish, this suggests increasing popularity, starting in the 1930s, consistent with what Kruse writes.

And that most famous of phrases, Lincoln's "this nation, under God"? I've taken out the smoothing in this plot to show the spikiness of the trend. The first peak back in the early 19th century is actually not a good one; it's got an apostrophe following "God," so all we have in the 19th century is the Gettysburg Address. Clicking through the later references, they too are mainly quotations of Lincoln. And once again there's a book by that title, this time from 1923. Overall though there isn't really an obvious increase in references to the speech in the early to middle 20th century. In fact if anything references die off a bit in the 1930s and 1940s. The n-grams therefore don't support Kruse's argument at all.

Finally what about the simplest, unprefixed form of the phrase: "under God"? The first run shows that it's a fairly popular phrase, on its way out in the 1900s after a peak in the middle of the previous century. At the same time there is definitely a little hump there, so let's zoom in (right). In the plot we can clearly see a resurgence in the phrase around 1940, though the increase seems smaller than the underlying trend. That's the sort of thing Kruse talks about, but it doesn't seem very impressive. Naturally there are a bunch of books with this phrase in their title, especially after the change to the Pledge of Allegiance, which seems more the consequence of what Kruse discusses.

In conclusion? The n-grams don't seem to offer much support for Kruse's contention. In particular the simple phrase "under God"—which dwarfs the more complex phrases in frequency—shows only a minor increase in usage after 1940, and a lot of that has to be attributed to the Pledge in 1954. But Google's just looking at books. How about the NYTimes itself?

Well, "government under God" gets us one hit, in 1957, which suggests this wasn't a big success. The Pledge's "one nation under God" first appears in an article about the Pledge itself, also no help for the theory. "Freedom under God" does seem to appear numerous times in the 1940s, including not a few by Catholic leaders. In fact Sheen's book, already mentioned above, seems to be the first reference in the newspaper. This seems consistent with the n-gram results in which the phrase appears in several Catholic sources from the 1920s.

As for the simple "under God," that appears a whole bunch of times even in the earliest years available in the search engine (1851-). For example, here's President Harding in his proclamation of Thanksgiving Day, 1921, which was subsequently quoted by the American ambassador to England, George Harvey.:
Under God, our responsibility is great; to our own first; to all men afterward, to all mankind in God's justice.
So where are we then? Well, this quick look at easily available data hasn't really allowed us to look closely at the context for a lot of the usage, though it does seem clear that

  • "under God" was a phrase Americans would have been familiar with and 
  • it enjoyed a bit of a resurgence in the 1940s and after, though did not see even a doubling is usage
  • Lincoln's phrase was pretty much his invention and was (and is?) quoted, but hardly re-used
  • "Government under God" went nowhere
  • "Freedom under God" seems to have been popular in Catholic circles from the 1920s on

In conclusion, it's not unfair to say that the 20th century was a popular time for connecting God with the nation in a linguistic way, but it's not clear from what we've looked at here that the resurgence didn't start a bit earlier than Kruse seems to talk about, and didn't ride over a strong substratum of "under God"-liness. It also might have its origins not in the Protestant Fifield, but among Catholics (who may also have been allies of Fifield), something that might not be too surprising in today's political climate.

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