In cartoons, when a character runs away suddenly, there's always a little swirling dust devil left behind. On Wednesday, America was overcome with these little vortexes -whatever you call them. A court in California ruled that the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional because it uses the phrase "under God," and every politician in the country was in such a hurry to be a character witness to God's constitutionality that it was like we became a nation of Speedy Gonzalezes.
Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Gary Bauer and other leaders of the Christian Right raced back to their offices to crank out fundraising letters or dashed into TV studios to denounce the atheistic huns of secular humanism. Meanwhile, the most dangerous place in America was between Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a television camera.
Don't get me wrong, I more or less completely agree with the Religious Right in their denunciations of this batty decision. I just found it hysterical to see how quickly the political class responded to the court's ruling. A liberal judge who finds God unconstitutional is precisely the stuff of which Republican dreams and Democratic nightmares are made.
Within hours, the Senate voted 99-0 to condemn the court's ruling, perhaps in a move to ward off the curse of Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential candidate who managed to find himself in the position of running against the Pledge of Allegiance in 1988. (I feel I can now report that Michael Dukakis was actually a prototype designed in a MIT laboratory to be the worst presidential candidate in history. My sources say that Dukakis 2.0 will actually spray acid in the faces of old people and call for the eradication of puppies, ice cream and the home mortgage interest deduction.)
Meanwhile, Republicans were, quite simply, giddy. The president and his spokesmen had to take a few deep breaths before voicing their outrage over the decision. And GOP congressmen raced, with me-too Democrats in tow, to the steps of the Capitol for an impromptu allegiance-pledging. And then, for good measure, they belted out "God Bless America" with extra-special emphasis on the "God." That'll show those left-coast pinkos!
The whole time, cable news nets were ecstatic, feeding the popular outrage and disbelief with round-the-clock coverage, as if O.J. Simpson actually held the Pledge of Allegiance hostage in his white Ford Bronco. And, of course, there were viewer polls, online polls, listener-call ins and public protests, all of which reflected, again, the staggering nationwide agreement: God is not unconstitutional.
Sure, some folks think the Pledge of Allegiance is a theocratic or fascist imposition on a free -and preferably atheistic -people. They might look at this national bout of St. Vitus' Dance as a sign of the mob rule. They might think, "Dear God! This is madness!" Or, more likely, "Dear Cold and Impersonal Universe! This is madness!"
And, some think America is sliding down a greasy pole to perdition, and this episode is just the latest proof. Next, they say, the secular cleansers will scrub "In God We Trust," "Endowed by their Creator" and "So help me God" from every coin, plaque, pledge, seal and document in
Me, I think it's been great. The judges responsible are catching hell and will be overturned. By Thursday afternoon Circuit Judge Alfred T. Goodwin, who wrote the 2-1 opinion, had put his ruling on hold indefinitely.
The ruling forced politicians across the spectrum to get on the right side of God. And the American people are getting a useful primer on the principles this country was founded upon and, more important, the principles it was not founded upon.
Case in point: This country is dedicated to the freedom of religion, not the freedom from religion. That's why even today, immigrants coming here "yearning to breathe free" recite the allegedly unconstitutional Pledge of Allegiance.
But there will be plenty of time to have that argument, assuming there's anybody left in America without an opinion on the subject. In the meantime, it's worth noting that whatever the judges of the 9th Circuit think, Americans and their political leaders are pretty sure that the Pledge of Allegiance -"under God" included -is OK.
And should the Supreme Court get the opportunity to ban the Pledge of Allegiance, I predict we'll see little more than nine Dust Devils where nine justices usually sit. Or whatever you call those things.