On the same day last year that the Supreme Court sliced a few ounces of flesh out of its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion, it also carved up an American tradition governing the public observance of Christmas. In the case of Allegheny v. ACLU, the Court held that Allegheny County in Pennsylvania could not display a Christian Nativity scene without also surrounding it with symbols of secularism. In the same decision, however, the Court ruled that because authorities in Pittsburgh had put up symbols of Hanukkah alongside Christian symbols, that display was not an endorsement of a particular sect or doctrine but only a tip of the city’s hat to the idea of religion in general. Presumably, if your city next year similarly honors Quetzalcoafl or Apollo the Mouse-Slayer, along with the more mundane Christian and Jewish faiths, the ACLU will leave you alone.

But in the Allegheny case, the ACLU was not the real plaintiff. That honor belongs to one Malik Tunador, a Moslem on whose behalf the ACLU brought the suit and saw it through to the final wisdom imparted by the nine unelected magistrates who rule America. Most of the sensible journalistic commentary on the case at the time dwelled on such staple themes as the dangers of judicial activism, social engineering under the guise of civil liberties, and triumphant secularism. All of these were apposite, but there is another that relates to the person of Mr. Tunador himself and that seems to have been lost in the verbal underbrush: namely, what happens to a nation’s cultural identity when unassimilated aliens within it gain political power and legal rights?

Mr. Tunador’s passion to rid Allegheny County of public endorsements of Judeo-Christian symbolism is not unique. Last year also, adherents of the Caribbean voodoo cult Santeria, who worship, among others, an odd god called “Babalu” and slaughter animals to his glory, brought suit against Miami in an effort to overturn that city’s animal protection laws so they could adore their bloodthirsty deity with impunity. They lost the first round in court, but they haven’t given up, and, Babalu willing, they may yet prevail over the forces of repression. Actually, letting Santeria devotees chop up dogs and chickens may be preferable to tolerating the liturgies of closely related cults also being imported into this country. In 1989 a gang of drug smugglers from Mexico kidnapped an American youth, cut off his legs, and buried his corpse in the desert as part of a ceremony to avoid capture.

It’s probably unlikely that adherents of Babalu and similar divinities will become Episcopalians any time soon. For that matter, it’s also improbable that such newcomers will convert to the constitutional republicanism that historically has governed the politics of the United States, traces its ancestry to British and Western European roots, and is virtually unknown in the Third World today. Nor should, we expect too many of our new citizens to adopt the social and moral institutions that most Euro-Americans have long followed and on which our government, legal system, economy, and indeed the education, arts, and sciences of our higher civilization rest. Not since the Salem witch trials of the late 17th century have Americans expressed much faith in the kind of paleolithic sorcery that the animalistic creeds of the Third World are now fetching hither, but their primitive paganism may soon percolate into our pantheon and permanently alter the basic assumptions and values of our national culture.

Indeed, for all the clichés among the professional xenophiles about the “strong family values” that the new immigrants are bringing to our exhausted society, many of the pilgrims appear to carry on a highly lucrative traffic in prostitution, narcotics, babyselling, and other quaint Third World customs. Today no less than 20 percent of the population of the federal prison system consists of aliens, and Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and International Law, notes that “What’s worse is that seven out of eight [criminal] aliens are either released or given probation and never serve time in prison.” He also says that present deportation procedures take so much time to send alien lawbreakers back to their fatherlands “that we’re talking about a massive problem, with potentially hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens who have committed crimes.”

Obviously, not all, not even most. Third World immigrants are murderous cultists, drug dealers, or deadbeats, but the stereotype of the new Americans as hardworking mathematical geniuses who start computer industries and carry the amenities of Seven- Eleven civilization into the inner cities is no less exaggerated. If even a small percentage of the several million, illegal aliens who meander across our borders every year is criminal, that alone is sufficient reason to stop the influx and expedite deportations.

The larger point is that even immigrants who want to assimilate often can’t, since a culture consists largely of unspoken and unconscious beliefs and behavior produced by long immersion in a particular institutional environment. The cultural apparatus that immigrants bring with them cannot be discarded, nor can the apparatus of the host country be adopted, as easily as American tourists exchange sombreros and pith helmets for black ties and evening gowns on their Club Med safaris. Learning English, getting a job, and wearing Western clothes in themselves betoken only minimal assimilation, and they mean nothing with respect to absorption of the underlying habits that define a culture and distinguish it from others. The names of two famous immigrants in American history illustrate what ought to be obvious to common sense. Both gentlemen arrived here in their early youth, grew up poor, and through hard work became eminently successful in their chosen professions. Both came to speak English fluently and dressed impeccably. But to their dying days there remained something about Al Capone and Lucky Luciano that just wasn’t American.

One fundamental part of a nation’s culture that no immigrant can possibly assimilate is its past. Even today, to some descendants of immigrants who came here in the late 19th or 20th centuries, the names of battles like Gettysburg and Lexington are as remote as the medieval carnage at Tewkesbury and Bosworth Field. It is one thing to learn the military and political history of a country from schoolbooks, but it’s not the same as having ancestors who fought it and endured it and whose participation in long stretches of the national experience has been passed down to their posterity by word of mouth and inheritance. If Abraham Lincoln were to deliver his Gettysburg Address today, he could not possibly speak of “our forefathers” without being accused of insensitivity by the descendants of those who didn’t arrive until it was considerably safer to be an American.

Nor does the ambition of many immigrants to enjoy the civil liberties and political freedoms of the United States necessarily imply any deep loyalty to or understanding of what allows our political culture to flourish. Just because you’re running for your life from death squads and secret police doesn’t mean you know much about the First Amendment or the incorporation doctrine, the separation of powers or the rule of law. Even many British immigrants to the United States often find the concept of federalism almost incomprehensible, and they discover fewer and fewer Americans who can explain it accurately. Moreover, only a small number of immigrants are willing or able to abandon entirely the prejudices and preconceptions that animate their own politics back home, and they often bring their strange animosities and enthusiasms with them in their baggage. The various ethnic constituencies whose never-ending quarrels and quibbles seem to determine the content of American foreign policy suggest that many who think of themselves as Americans are really little more than transplanted foreigners. In the last several years, one of the most dangerous sources of terrorist activity in the United States has consisted of aliens—from Iran, Libya, Central America, the Middle East, Armenia, etc.—who insist on importing their own local fixations, ethnic or ideological, to these shores.

The ethnic, racial, and cultural mosaic into which the United States, for the first time in its history, is metamorphosing suggests that eventually it will go the way of just about every other multicultural society in human history. The late Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the dominions of the Habsburgs and the Romanovs, among others, all presided over a kind of rainbow coalition of nations and peoples, who for the most part managed to live happily because their secret compulsions to spill each other’s blood were restrained by the overwhelming power of the despots and dynasties who ruled them. Political freedom relies on a shared political culture as much as on the oppositions and balances that social differentiation creates, and when the common culture disintegrates under the impact of mass migrations, only institutionalized force can hold the regime together. Mr. Gorbachev and his satraps are discovering this truth even now as their bureaucratic empire decomposes into national and ethnic fragments that contest for dominance. It is ironic that the long-suppressed nations of the Eurasian Heartland seem to be on the eve of satisfying their aspirations for political identity and cultural renaissance even as the American nation faces oblivion.

Whether new Americans like Citizen Tunador and the worshipers at the shrine of Babalu will be happy in the new Moslemo-Santerio-Buddho-Confucio-Judeo-Christian society they are trying to create is dubious. Of course, if their creation is not to their liking, they can always pick up and hoof it somewhere else, and since they’ve already done so once, maybe they won’t mind moving on again. But those Americans who remain loyal to the national heritage their forefathers created or received may find it more difficult to locate an adequate substitute for what massive and uncontrolled immigration is helping to destroy.