To make an urgent point—the corruption of the representation of history in film by the anachronistic distortions of contemporary politics—Roger McGrath, in his fine and well-argued analysis (“Celluloid Nation,” March), at the outset and at the end uses language that suggests that he holds non-Christians are un-American, the practice of religions other than Christianity marking a person as unworthy of the blood and heroism of Tarawa. The long prologue to the shank of his essay holds that the Marines were defending their tribe “united by race, language, culture, and religion.” And this, he makes explicit, means white and Christian, at least.

Language and culture represent open categories; all of us non-Christians/nonwhites speak (or produce children who speak) ordinary, plain American English, and so far as Dr. McGrath means by “culture” the intimacies that we share in everyday life, the ways of walking that mark us, in a crowd of Asians or Europeans, as indelibly American, he is right: All of us walk the same way. But does he really maintain that skin tone defines Americanness? My black American friends have been here for 350 years. They, too, fought and died in all our wars. Does he think that practicing Christianity is a requirement of citizenship? Then Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam, among other religions, should be specified in an amendment to the Constitution as grounds for exclusion. In writing up the amendment. Dr. McGrath might specify which of the many brands of Christianity qualifies, and how he plans to dispose of atheists and (merely) secular persons.

White Protestants of Northern European ancestry do not exercise a monopoly over Americanism or own the heroism of the United States Marines. Without its prologue and epilogue, the shank of Mr. McGrath’s essay could have made its perfectly valid point.

        —Jacob Neusner
Tampa, FL

Dr. McGrath Replies:

Jacob Neusner raises a number of good points, several of which deserve separate articles. (Editors, please take note.) I suppose much of this can be boiled down to the question: How much diversify can America tolerate and still be America? There is no question that, at the time the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution was framed, an American was white and English-speaking, and a product of Western Christian civilization. Nonwhites were not allowed citizenship until Republicans forced through the 14th Amendment in 1868 partly as a way to enfranchise blacks in the South who they thought would then vote for the Grand Old Party. Moreover, whenever non-white immigration reached any significant level, restrictions and prohibitions were enacted, e.g., the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, and the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924.

When the Founding Fathers talked about religious freedom, they were essentially thinking of disestablishing the Anglican Church. “Freedom of worship” meant that Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Catholics should no longer suffer as they had under English rule. I really don’t think the Founders were thinking about Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, animists, and Santerians. In Los Angeles, Muslims outnumber Episcopalians. They outnumber Presbyterians. They outnumber Methodists. So, too, do Buddhists. And, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, so, too, do Santerians.

Teachers in the Los Angeles schools receive a pocket calendar from the California Teachers’ Association that includes the following highlighted dates for 1998-99: July 7, Mawlid el-Nabi (Prophet Muhammad’s birthday); September 20, Ramadan (Muslim holy month); January 19, Shawwal (Muslim holy day); March 28, Thw al-Hijjah (Muslim holy day); April 17, Muharram (Muslim holy day). Hindus and Buddhists score with Diwali (festival of lights) in November and Buddha’s Birth, Enlightenment, and Death Commemoration on May 22. In the bad old days, when I was in the Los Angeles schools, we had Christmas and Easter.

What if America is five or ten percent non-white, non-English-speaking, non- Christian, non-Western? No problem. A little salt and pepper is interesting, enlivens and invigorates culture, and introduces new perspectives. But what if that number becomes 40, 60, 80 percent of the population? Still no problem? No, I think it is called fragmentation, separation. Balkanization. Los Angeles is an outstanding example of this. While politicians, school officials, and other so called community leaders mouth inane slogans such as “Our Diversity Is Our Strength,” whites flee to far-flung suburbs as fast as their SUV’s will carry them. Ever wonder where all the whites in southern Orange County or eastern Ventura County came from?

There are so few whites left in the Los Angeles Unified School District that busing only means that blacks and Hispanics are bused to schools in white neighborhoods. All the white children whose parents can afford it are in private or parochial schools, leaving the local school no more than 20 or 30 percent white. As a whole, the district is now less than 15 percent white. In 1960, before busing and uncontrolled immigration, it was 85 percent white. Schools were overcrowded, on double session, and exploding with children. Take a look at those same schools today. In most of the elementary schools, English is a foreign language.

It seems to me that it is perfectly natural, moral, ethical, and legal for a people to want to preserve their identity. Would Japanese allow themselves to become Russian? Would Israelis allow themselves to become Arab? Would Indians allow themselves to become Chinese? Why should it be our fate to lose our American identity? Moreover, most of the changes I cite in California (Los Angeles, in particular) have come about only since 1965. This need not have happened. No, I don’t think this is what Col. David Shoup, Lt. William Deane Hawkins, S. Sgt. William Bordelon, Lt. Alexander Bonnyman, Maj. Michael P. Ryan, Cpl. John J. Spillane, and the other heroes of Tarawa fought for. I might add that three chaplains—Wyeth Willard, F.W. Kelly, and J.V.E. Loughlinwere decorated for their bravery at Tarawa. Not a Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist among them. If anyone wants to know what the Americans looked like who stormed ashore at Tarawa, simply view the documentary, With the Marines at Tarawa. The color combat footage is the best ever shot. Take a close look at the faces of the Marines as they mob Ensign W.W. Kelly after he lands his Hellcat on Tarawa and as they leave the island. Those are the lads. God bless you, boys.