Josh Howard, a well-known basketball player for the Dallas Mavericks, was in attendance at a football game recently, when the national anthem began. Someone taped the sports figure saying, "The Star Spangled Banner is going on right now, and I don't even celebrate that sh--; I'm black, go-da-nit!" What a sorry spectacle this was! Never mind that he has been privileged to earn millions of dollars a year in this country playing a game, in which he dribbles a ball and attempts to throw it through a hoop.

One must not make the mistake of thinking this reprehensible comment an isolated case.  It is not. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, formerly known as Chris Wayne Jackson, who once played basketball for the Denver Nuggets, made a practice of refusing on religious grounds to stand for the anthem, insisting that the United States flag is a "symbol of oppression" and "has a long history of tyranny." Apparently, it had never occurred to him to investigate whether countries professing Islam, to which he converted in 1991, live up to the religion's claims of peace.  These countries have never been known for their broad-mindedness or a "live and let live" attitude.

There is, as we know, a contemporary political personality, whose keen sense of conscience, propriety, or taste, whatever you wish to call it, compelled him –before the Presidential race tightened -- not to wear a flag pin in his lapel nor to place his hand over his heart while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. He also happened to have been a twenty-year protégé of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the "prince of mouth," who is a devotee of James Cone's lightweight, sophomoric, and hateful "liberation theology." While a politician's condescension to patriotism may be sufficient to win the tacit approval of Tom Brokaw and other journalistic midgets of our time, I am not sure how a negative attitude toward the Stars and Stripes will play on November 4, 2008, to the vast number of Americans who are not part of the country's cultural elite.  We shall see.

But, in the meantime, what are we to make of American citizens who show contempt for their flag? Facts and circumstances, of course, have to be weighed in each case.  But, generally speaking, I believe that, in spite of the United States Supreme Court's best wisdom on the subject, a public demonstration of disrespect for the flag is one of the most destructive acts imaginable to the body politic.

Let me explain.  A flag is the unique symbol of a nation's life.  A symbol is not a mere sign, which simply points to a reality.  A symbol, as Paul Tillich reminds us, also participates in the reality to which it points and, as such, evokes the deepest levels of emotion, will, and thought.  A symbol is alive.  It pulsates with energy.  It reflects our concerns, our hopes, our fears, our aspirations and, perhaps above all else, our values.  Who we are as a people is uniquely mirrored in our flag.  Consider the pathos of its having been raised over Iwo Jima during World War II, the scene pictured on the right, and tell me that it does not pull the strings of your heart.

So, when a citizen refuses to stand for the national anthem or is otherwise disrespectful of the flag, his conduct amounts to nothing less than an assault upon the nation itself and may be properly regarded as a treacherous act.  A nation that tolerates such treachery as "protected speech" embarks upon a sure path to destruction.  A solid American citizen should no more be expected to tolerate disrespect and desecration of his country's flag than he would the public defamation and humiliation of his wife or daughter.  I frankly see little difference.

Sure, any United States citizen has the right to criticize his country's policies and its officials. I do not deny this.  A citizen's criticism need not be well-informed, intelligent or noble.  It may be outrageously stupid or even fatuous. I remember political activists during the Vietnam War chanting within President Lyndon B. Johnson's hearing, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" The First Amendment of our Constitution protected that speech, even when the content inflamed the President himself. Talk to any red-blooded American concerning this issue, and chances are he will sooner or later admit to you that, while not necessarily agreeing with what protesters say, he will support to the death their right to say it.  For the record, I am one such American.

Yet an important distinction concerning speech is firmly embedded in my cerebral cortex. The "content" of speech should be protected at all costs, while its "form" need not. This distinction is particularly relevant when considering a protest involving the United States flag. A citizen who lives and works in this country may detest the President and his foreign policy.  He may wish to advance the preposterous thesis that 9/11 was "an inside job."  Photographs of the flag being hoisted at Ground Zero, like the one on the left, may fail to move him.  Such a citizen still is, and should be, entitled to stand up in a public forum and to make his points as vociferously as he pleases, utilizing whatever words his tongue summons to the occasion. But if and when he takes the additional step of picking up the American flag and unceremoniously burning it, while at the same time rapping lyrics like "America, the red, white, and blue, we spit on you, you stand for plunder, you will go under!", free speech has metamorphosed into an assault upon the nation itself. These were some of the facts before the Supreme Court in Johnson v. Texas, a case involving flag desecration, that was finally adjudicated in 1989 and upheld in 1990. The Court asserted, and I think incorrectly, that flag desecration is protected speech.

The United States Congress subsequently attempted to propose a constitutional amendment prohibiting the desecration of the flag.  A two-thirds majority vote in each house of Congress is of course required for passage, but the amendment failed by a single vote in the Senate, with Senators Obama and Biden voting against it, and Senator McCain supporting it. 

Aside from helping us to understand the men who are running for our highest offices in 2008, this failed amendment causes us to look closely at Congress and to ask, "What else is new?"  It is but one more example of the escalating litany of Congressional gridlock. A troubled Social Security system, a healthcare crisis, energy dependence, troubled public education, an immigration catastrophe, corrupt financial institutions, and a polluted environment have all served to underscore a single truth: Congress is hopelessly paralyzed when attempting to resolve the major problems confronting the nation, because there is a cultural divide among us. Our nation's population is no longer a culturally unified one.  Some citizens understand this fact as an occasion to promote secular, liberal, and multicultural values, while other citizens hold fast to traditional ones.  Until this underlying issue is resolved, the newly elected President is sure to be despised by at least one half the population and Congress will remain in perpetual paraplegia.  This fact does not enhance my sense of security one bit; does it yours?  

A temptation is to allow the Supreme Court, nine unelected persons, to re-define by judicial fiat the culture of the country according to its own social and political philosophy.  God help us.

September 19, 2008