Late-Night TV to the Rescue
Scripps-Howard News Service 7.31.02
Blessed is our land for its ability to deal with the highly complex
in the simplest of ways. Ten years ago we said goodbye to Johnny
Carson, but now we have Jay Leno.
Last week, the night of Wall Street's worst drop, Jay said - without
the slightest heaviness in his voice - "you see, we took out
'under God' from the Pledge of Allegiance, so God is saying 'OK,
see how far you get without me.'"
Thunderous applause from the audience.
As anyone who has stood in line for NBC-TV's Tonight Show knows,
there is more America in that audience than in all the focus groups
and opinion polls combined.
Reverend so-and-so may shake his fist at America. The Ninth Circuit
may unleash its dimmest panel yet. The Supreme Court may deliberate
for weeks on end. For Jay, as for most Americans, it's quite simple.
"OK - see how far you get without me."
We are in the midst of two great debates. One is about "separation
of church and state." Blessed are they who have not read the
U.S. Constitution, for they can afford to refer to the phrase as
a constitutional provision. Those of us burdened with the experience
of having actually read those few remarkable pages know only that
it ain't there. Whether the Founding Fathers had it in mind is for
clever people like Phil Donahue to figure out. His extensive communings
with Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin surely provide the necessary
This first debate appears to be of recent vintage. Not so. Many
centuries ago, thinkers began to turn their attention to aspects
of philosophy, soon to encompass political philosophy. Organization
of the secular world - until then fashioned largely to reflect the
hierarchy of the Church - was the purpose.
Those who wrote in English found ways to make their recommendations
without challenging the Church - certainly without challenging God.
Such was John Locke, such were America's Founding Fathers. Those
who wrote in French and German - of whom Marx was one, and whose
teachings Lenin applied in the Bolshevik Revolution - picked a quarrel
with God from the very beginning. From René Descartes through
Immanuel Kant to Martin Heidegger, the ultimate slaying of God became
unavoidable, for without it the supremacy of the human mind could
not be proclaimed.
Thus, the debate is legitimate, valid, and of long standing. What
is phony is the suggestion that we are engaged in "different
interpretations of the Constitution." In truth, we have simply
imported an age-old dispute between the main protagonists of Western
There is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits a preference
for French and German thought over the Anglo-American. But establishing
clarity does help if one decides to advocate one side of an intensive
debate - all the more so as we look at the other debate.
The other debate is about to test our concept of religious liberty,
of tolerance, of first-amendment rights to the limit.
In the absence of a state religion, denominations proliferated
in America to an extent unimaginable in Europe. As if to symbolize
the new society, the church steeple no longer marked the center
of town. How could it, if no church carried greater weight than
any other, and there were so many of them? No - it was the courthouse
that occupied the central square now, symbol of the institution
where everyone could find relief, regardless of faith, origin, or
social status. And the court was surrounded by a growing array of
houses of worship.
But they were all Christian or Jewish - all anchored in the book
we call the Holy Bible.
Now comes Lynne Cheney's new "Patriotic Primer" and its
entry for the letter "G (God)." On the page opposite,
"Main Street USA" is drawn to include a mosque and a Hindu
Ancestors of those who worship in those holy places were neither
present at America's founding, nor contributed the ideas and tenets
expressed in the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution.
But they have asked for, and been granted, a new home in our land
and, with that, all the liberties, rights, protections established
in those documents.
What is the debate, then? Whether our way of life will endure faced
with this expansion, and what we must ask of our new fellow-Americans
in the way of conscious effort to study, comprehend, and adopt without
reservation, that way of life.
Or we shall really wake up to the message, "OK - see how far
you get without me."