Late-Night TV to the Rescue

Scripps-Howard News Service 7.31.02
Balint Vazsonyi

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 insight.

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 Civilization.

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 temple.

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."