Flag Idolatry

July 07, 1995|By CAL THOMAS

Washington -- Watching the Fourth of July festivities here (and around the country on television) showed the depth of love most Americans have for this country. That is why a constitutional amendment to ban the burning of the American flag is so silly, stupid and unnecessary.

No one forced the millions of people waving flags to love America, and to respect and honor the republic for which it stands. They exhibited a spontaneity no law can impose.

When the House last month passed a constitutional amendment that would, should the Senate and states concur, outlaw flag burning, it continued a game politicians have been playing with public-school prayer. The rules of the game are that the social problems confronting America can be fixed from the top -- a kind of ''trickle-down'' morality.

Politicians love this because such a view advances their careers and preserves their jobs. Others hold this belief because it absolves them of responsibility for fixing what is wrong with their own priorities and transfers it to government. And when government increasingly reveals its inability to repair social damage, we blame not ourselves but government and politicians, deepening the cynicism against institutions and those who work in them.

There hasn't been a lot of flag burning since the Vietnam War. Sen. Howell Heflin, D-Ala., says that's why now, when the heat of passion is reduced, is the best time to ban it.

But any time is a bad time for such a ban. First, what constitutes a ''flag''? Is it only the cloth that waves from a flagpole or can be stapled to a wooden stick and held in the hand? Is the reproduction of the Stars and Stripes on a napkin, patch or coffee cup a flag? Some flags are made in Taiwan or in other nations. Would they count as American flags?

I saw a chair upholstered in a flag. If the chair were thrown on a bonfire during a protest rally, would that violate the proposed amendment? And why is burning being singled out for prohibition? Isn't stomping, spitting or pouring paint on the flag also desecration?

Those who would ban flag burning have placed the American flag in a category and context that is idolatrous. Idolatry is defined as ''the worship of a physical object as a god; immoderate attachment or devotion to something.''

While we don't worship or devote ourselves to the flag as we might a religious symbol or being, the attachment some would force on the rest of us comes pretty close to resembling that definition.

The Fourth of July overwhelms us all with the number of displayed and waved American flags. As with speech, the best way to overcome the ugly variety is with more and more beautiful speech, along with a common rejection of the ugly speaker and his words.

When a flag is burned, it is the protester, not the flag, who is demeaned. He reveals his base ingratitude when he burns a symbol of a nation great enough even to allow him to indulge in moronic behavior.

Banning flag burning will increase the probability that flags will be burned. Allowing it removes the political stinger.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.

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