Celebrating Americas' independence

Posted: Jul 05, 2002 12:00 AM
Imagine if last year the United States Supreme Court had decided every one of its cases the other way around. In fact, imagine if every constitutional decision by every court in the land in, say, the last five years had been decided differently. While you think about that, bear in mind all of the rhetoric from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Christian Coalition, camera-mugging senators and hysterical op-ed pages that accompanied these various court decisions. Now, ask yourself, would I have spent my Fourth of July any differently? And, for the vast, vast, majority of us, the answer is an obvious no. In all likelihood, you'd still spend your Fourth grilling hotdogs, watching fireworks and celebrating our nation's birthday as you always have, still secure in the notion that this is the most wonderful and free nation on Earth. This is true if you're black or white, male or female, an immigrant from Cambodia or a descendent of the first white folks to bring mayonnaise to these shores. One of the wonderful things about America is our quasi-religious devotion to texts. Unlike most nations, the most revered jewels in our common cultural treasure chest aren't paintings, buildings or sculptures. No, our most cherished icons are words. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address: these are the holiest of holies of our secular faith. Alexis de Tocqueville noted this American obsession with laws, creeds and mottos nearly two centuries ago, and it has held true ever since. But the downside of our wondrous obsession with laws is that sometimes we take such pride in being a nation of laws that we think our laws alone make us a nation. For example, when we debate the Constitution or civil rights generally, we often fall into the rhetorical trap of suggesting that tyranny and totalitarianism hang in the balance. We think if the courts permit suspected terrorists to be held without trial we'll be a police state. If the Supreme Court permits the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance or tolerates non-denominational prayer in an Oklahoma school district, we think we will careen down a slippery slope to theocracy. I don't want to downplay the importance of these debates too much - they do matter a great deal. But it's worth noting, especially around the Fourth of July, that America is not just a collection of laws. We aren't like a 747. You can't just swap crews and passengers and expect it to run the same way. If you emptied the United States of all its current residents and replaced them with immigrants from all over the world, you would not recreate America or anything remotely like it - even if you kept all of the laws and rules we operate under. The American people are, well, a people raised with a particular set of values and attitudes. We are as culturally distinct, in our own way, as the Russians, the Germans or Iranians. An American of Chinese, African, Belgian or Pakistani descent has vastly more in common with his fellow American citizens than he does with anybody in those countries. If you've ever traveled abroad for any length of time you'd know this already. We may like to think we are all rugged American individuals, making our own choices immune to the opinions of others. But all you have to do is talk to somebody from another country and hear him say "all you Americans are alike" to understand how powerful the common culture really is. Take this ongoing absurd fight over the Pledge of Allegiance. I have now received, by my rough count, 8 gazillion e-mails on the subject. Approximately 4.5 gazillion of these e-mails explain that not only am I a moron, but that the words "under God" make America a theocracy of some kind. Well, the words "under God" have been there for almost a half-century. Does anyone seriously think religious minorities have been oppressed in this country? Of course not. You know why? Because Americans are a wonderfully accepting and decent people. And they will remain that way whether or not the Supreme Court yanks the words "under God" from the pledge or if it orders all Americans to say it every day of the week. We would still be far less of a theocracy than the notoriously oppressive nation known as England, where government officials say "God save the Queen" and swear loyalty to a monarchy based upon the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. Regardless, my only point as we celebrate the Fourth of July is this: America is a wonderful nation because it is overflowing with wonderful people. I am all for lionizing the Founding Fathers and the beautifully ingenious machinery they created for preserving liberty. But let's not forget to give ourselves a pat on the back too. Because if we didn't care about being a nation of laws, the law wouldn't matter one bit.