THE television cameras panned the throng gathered on the banks of the Charles River for this year's Boston Pops celebration of the ``Fourth.'' Somehow, this viewer expected to detect at least subtle differences from past observances. Aren't we, after all, now more blas`e about demonstrations of patriotism, and isn't ``sophisticated'' Boston less demonstrative than, say, a ``heartland'' city like Indianapolis? But the cameras' images joined easily with those from Fourth observances in other places and eras: The crowd, mostly young, awash in waving flags, sang heartily as the orchestra played traditional songs of national celebration.
Events and expressions like the Esplanade concert have remained a source of puzzlement and amusement, even consternation, for foreign observers. They find the emotional force which surrounds the various symbols of nation in the United States to be jarring.
Is it really sensible, they ask, for the world's most powerful country to spend a full year - as the US has done since the Supreme Court decided Texas v. Johnson on June 21, 1989 - debating whether the flag needs a constitutional amendment protecting it?
Yet it was an Englishman, G.K. Chesterton, who in 1922 best explained, perhaps, Americans' attachment to their national symbols. The United States, Chesterton reminded his readers, was built not on a common ethnicity but on a body of political ideas. ``America is the only nation in the world,'' he wrote, ``that is founded on a creed'' - on a philosophy which is ``set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity.''
``America invites all men to become citizens,'' Chesterton continued, ``but it implies the dogma that there is such a thing as citizenship.'' We become US citizens in the full, rather than the narrowly legal, sense through commitment to the political ideas proclaimed in the Declaration and the Constitution, the great documents of America's republican founding.
Constitutional arguments in the US have been described as ``theological,'' which is really quite precise. They have the same moral intensity, the same sense that opposing views are not just ill-advised but wrong, the same inclination to engage in intricate extrapolation from a text endowed with fundamental meaning and purpose, often present in great religious arguments. The flag debate is part of this tradition.
Yet there is a constant danger in the US system of ``over-constitutionalizing'' routine policy disagreements - of insisting that perfectly ordinary differences over the best way to go be neatly settled in American higher law. This is evident in Texas v. Johnson and United States v. Eichman, et al, the flag cases which the Supreme Court decided in June '89 and this past month.
Discussion of the flag issue is cast in terms of unambiguous constitutional rights and requirements attendant on American citizenship. ``The hard fact is,'' wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in his concurring opinion in the Texas case, ``that sometimes we must make decisions we do not like. We make them because they are right, right in the sense that the law and the Constitution... compel the result.'' In fact, high court justices have been wildly divided as to what the Constitution requires on questions of flag protection.
Ardent civil libertarians such as former Chief Justice Earl Warren and former Justice Hugo Black have argued that reasonably crafted prohibitions against flag burning do not violate the Constitution, while conservatives such as Justice Kennedy have insisted they do.
The only clear conclusion is that intelligent men and women, equally dedicated to the broad ideals of the American system, disagree about whether we better enhance the flag as a powerful symbol of American nationhood by providing modest sanctions against those who defile it, or by leaving it physically vulnerable to represent the essential constitutional guarantee of individual dissent. But most of us - from Supreme Court justices on down to ordinary citizens - find it hard to avoid insisting that the handling of the flag issue is somehow linked to the most fundamental sense of American citizenship.
This is our philosophic inheritance as a nation founded ``on a creed.'' It invites some political showboating, and at times we sound too absolutist. Overall, though, the US gains much from the creedal passions evident in the argument over flag protection. That, two centuries and more after the American experiment began, we still bring so much moral energy to debates over its meaning and what it requires of us, is exhilarating.