Attention, citizens of America. Your nation is on Gay Alert.

It’s true: On Jan. 20, MSNBC wire service reported that two Christian groups had issued a “gay alert warning” over an upcoming television special featuring SpongeBob SquarePants. I followed the ensuing ruckus with understandable rapture, for not only was I unfamiliar with “SpongeBob SquarePants” — something that sounds more like an embarrassing infection than a children’s cartoon — but I was most definitely a stranger to the Gay Alert.

Query the issue online and you’ll uncover a heated discussion, centered around a short video which allegedly features SpongeBob, Barney and myriad other Freudian nightmares singing “We are Family”; this video was produced by the conveniently-named We Are Family Foundation and is destined for — gasp! — schoolchildren. I hope this doesn’t sound in any way benign, because good golly, it’s not.

To my dismay, initial reports were misleading: The Christians never accused SpongeBob himself of being queer. No, he’s just a jolly, upbeat sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea, and the jury’s still out on him. But what, then, was SpongeBob’s crime? Caught in a compromising tangle with Winnie the Pooh? Snapped slapping rainbow decals on senators’ limos? No, my gentle flock — SpongeBob is guilty of promoting tolerance of homosexuality.

Christian groups are outraged, and led by the cringe-worthy duo of the “American Family Association” and “Focus on the Family,” they have issued boycotts and screamed polemical Mayday. Beware the homo sponge! Ahem, sorry — beware the words of compassion brought by the pineapple-dwelling heathen! Quick, raise the Gay Alert level to Rainbow!

Permit me a brief reality check in this foaming maelstrom of Big-Gulp idiocy: Tolerance is defined as the capacity to recognize and respect the beliefs or practices of others. I’ll repeat this, because it’s important: “Recognize and respect.” Not adopt, condone or even endorse. Startlingly, this distinction has not escaped the Christian right, who lambasted the authors of the video for their vow of tolerance: “I pledge to have respect for people whose abilities, beliefs, culture, race, sexual identity or other characteristics are different from my own.” A threatening mantra if ever I heard one. Them’s fightin’ words.

Evidently, the nation must accept that not only are so-called Moral Moms deathly afraid of their children turning out queer, but they reject the notion that their kids can even tolerate gays. And good for them! Since when was tolerance the teaching of the Lord, anyway?

Christian groups, flying the twin banners of morality and family values, have attacked the belief that homosexuals deserve respect. They have whipped God-fearing parents into a homophobic frenzy, leveling pre-emptive embargoes and browbeating school boards to reject the cartoon. AFA chairman Don Wildmon has even condemned an online petition that encouraged signers to combat “ignorance, insensitivity and bigotry.” By golly, I’m glad someone put a stop to that! Up with ignorance, insensitivity and bigotry, praise the Lord!

This all reminds me of the scandal several years back, wherein Teletubby Tinky-Winky was “outed” by the Christian right, presumably for carrying a purse and being popular with homosexuals. The utter hilarity of the recent SpongeBob Gay Alert, paired with the unsmiling righteousness with which it was issued, begs the question — where does the next homosexual threat lurk? The terrific thing about this is, of course, that the simplest way to send rednecks fleeing for cover is to claim their interests are appealing to gays. Imagine the pure havoc that would grip the South following a Fox News update that NASCAR has become the sport of choice for urban gays, or that bourbon is preferred 2-to-1 by homosexuals. Pandemonium!

Flatly stated, the angst of the religious right is absurd: Homosexuality is not the norm for the human race, and by definition, can never be. It is not rampant or dangerous, and tolerance of homosexuals is at worst wholly benign. In all seriousness, what do they fear will happen if SpongeBob hits the schools with his wild words? Worst case, the next generation of Americans isn’t quite so prone to bigotry.

And yet, the alert stands. We live in preposterous times: times where the continued persecution of gays, the poor and immigrants is a “moral” issue, but an unjust war somehow is not; where Creationist theme parks blithely display humans walking amidst dinosaurs; where a smug president spends millions on tasteless self-indulgence while his troops perish far away for want of Humvee armor.

The moderate center is losing this war of attrition. It’s trench warfare, and the front line keeps pushing back. Here, we see an attack not on gays, but on widespread acceptance of gays. This is patent rubbish, and must be stopped.

And to you, Don Wildmon, listen. I’m hardly an advocate of cartoon sponges with single-digit IQs blathering nonsense to the nation’s youth; and I agree, if anything sounds like a Gay Alert waiting to happen, it’s this video. But fear SquarePants — not the real, breathing people he begs us all to tolerate.

Michael Seringhaus is a fourth-year graduate student in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry.