John J. McKay: Palin gets her history wrong (If English was good enough for Jesus it's good enough for me)

Roundup: Historians' Take

When Sarah Palin was running for governor in 2006, Eagle Forum, the anti-abortion group run by Phyllis Schlafly, sent a questionnaire to the candidates. Most of her answers were those desired by the group. She would allow abortion only to save the life of the mother (that is, opposed it even for rape and incest). Thought parents should be able to pull their kids out of any school classes that used books or taught information they disagreed with. Favored abstinence-only sex education ,school vouchers, and guns. Opposed hate-crime laws, legalized gambling, benefits for same-sex spouses, and gay marriage. But one answer stands out for its sheer silliness.

Q: Are you offended by the phrase "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance? Why or why not?

A: Not on your life. If it was good enough for the founding fathers, its good enough for me and I’ll fight in defense of our Pledge of Allegiance.

Let's take this one from the top. None of the founding fathers ever said the pledge. It was written long after they were all dead. The first version was written by the Christian Socialist Francis Bellamy (the brother of utopian novelist Edward Bellamy) in 1892. The words were tinkered with a few times during his lifetime, but never included "Under God." Those were added in 1954 by an act of Congress at the request of the Catholic fraternal organization, the Knights of Columbus. The KC wanted the change to get more God into our public life to highlight the difference between the US and the godless Soviet Union.

This is not a bit of historical trivia. The story of the evolution of the pledge has been told in the press countless times over the last half dozen years while various court cases have kept the pledge, and issues of religion in public schools, in the public eye. Anyone who is well informed on current events or politics--like the governor of a state--should have a passing familiarity with this story.

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R.R. Hamilton - 9/12/2008

I will not deny that the quote may be apocryphal. It was one that I heard in Texas and reportedly matched the personality of Gov. "Ma" Ferguson closely enough that it could be believe even if it wasn't true.

As for why it took the Germans so long to petition for restoration of German-language curricula, all I can say is that Texas is part of the South where, "the past isn't forgotten; in fact, it isn't even past." :)

Raul A Garcia - 9/9/2008

I don't think I want any "Know-it-alls" in office- they are probably elitists as well. I think after all this panning, I'll vote Anarchist. Ho-hum.

Stephen Morrison - 9/9/2008

It's an urban legend, all right. Language Log had a post a few years ago which traced one version back to 1881; the URL is

art eckstein - 9/8/2008

Dear RRH,

Where is the written contemporary evidence that Gov. Ferguson said what you say she said?

You've provided a possible context for the remark, though a priori since she was governor of Texas for the first time from 1925 to 1927 (and then 1933-1935), this seems quite late after WWI for the German-speakers of Texas to be protesting the imposition of English during the war, now almost 10 years in the past.

I'm not saying this context is wrong. I'm saying: where is the written contemporary evidence (not later rumor) that she said what you say she said?

R.R. Hamilton - 9/8/2008

Btw, growing up in South Texas in the 1960s I learned to speak Spanish "on the street". But I also had to speak some German because as a teenager I got a job selling home cleaning products door-to-door, and sometimes the lady of the house spoke only German.

R.R. Hamilton - 9/8/2008

Dear Mr. Eckstein,

I'm from Texas, and growing up there I knew people who knew Ma Ferguson.

I've googled this a bit and the only inaccuracy I find is that the governor was objecting to Spanish being taught in schools. While Texas may be heavily "Hispanic" today, it was not so in the 1920s. The truth was that before World War I, there were many schools in Texas where the entire curriculum was in German. (The hill country west of Austin is still called "the German Hill Country".) After the U.S. entry into World War I, the Texas legislature voted to ban educational instruction in any language other than English -- this meant the Germans, mostly, but also smaller communities of Poles and Czechs. There were no "Spanish-speaking schools". Anyway, after the war, the Germans asked if they could resume instruction in their native language and Gov. Ferguson's quote was a response to those efforts.

art eckstein - 9/8/2008

RRH--the quote you cite, "if English was good enough for Jesus...." is what's called "an urban legend".

There's no solid evidence that any politician every said this, and none that Miriam Ferguson did.

It's a hilarious quote, but...sorry.

Vernon Clayson - 9/7/2008

Mr. Schnerman isn't the most literate of commentators but he's correct, whatever they call it now it's still royalty and the serfs.

R.R. Hamilton - 9/7/2008

Actually, I think Obama said he had visited 57 states, but had 2 or 3 left to go.

Anyway, I don't know if Gov. Palin's remark is any worse than that of another female governor. Gov. Miriam "Ma" Ferguson of Texas, in vetoing a bill allowing for foreign language instruction, famously said, "If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for the schoolchildren of Texas."


Arnold Shcherban - 9/6/2008

Well, has anyone here express an approval for Obama candidacy?
Both presidential and vice-presidential candidates (as it has been going on for decades in this country) are not politicians, they are eliticians. Neither of them puts the interests of the American majority
beyond the finances and priviliges of the US economic and political elite, and never will. In fact both major
political parties in this country are
anti-democratic in internal affairs and imperialistic in the external ones. Supported by mostly ignorant and stupefied by the "US, US uber alles"-type perpertual propaganda these parties are leading the American society back to history socially (just decorated by technological progress) and the world at large forward to disaster.

Vernon Clayson - 9/5/2008

So Mr. Vanvugt won't excuse a rather harmless remark about the Pledge of Allegiance, but I haven't seen that he commented on it but I bet he was astounded, aghast, and alarmed when Obama said there were 57 states.

Lorraine Paul - 9/5/2008

I live in Australia, and I even knew that it was a relatively new addition to the pledge. But then I take an interest in politics as well as history!!!

Once a beauty queen, always a beauty queen!!

william e vanvugt - 9/5/2008

Sorry. This is not a matter of "silliness." It is a matter of profound ignorance on her part, and wrecklessness on the man who chose her to be his running mate. Does anyone really believe that this hockeymom is ready?