[Guest post by Isaac Chotiner]

Ross Douthat's studiously non-judgemental column in today's New York Times discusses what he calls "Islam and the Two Americas." According to Douthat:

There’s an America where it doesn’t matter what language you speak, what god you worship, or how deep your New World roots run. An America where allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides.


There's another America as well, one that understands itself as a distinctive culture, rather than just a set of political propositions. This America speaks English, not Spanish or Chinese or Arabic. It looks back to a particular religious heritage: Protestantism originally, and then a Judeo-Christian consensus that accommodated Jews and Catholics as well. It draws its social norms from the mores of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora--and it expects new arrivals to assimilate themselves to these norms, and quickly.

Douthat lays out how each America has reacted to the mosque controversy before adding that, "But both understandings of this country have real wisdom to offer, and both have been necessary to the American experiment’s success." His evidence for this is as follows:

During the great waves of 19th-century immigration, the insistence that new arrivals adapt to Anglo-Saxon culture — and the threat of discrimination if they didn’t — was crucial to their swift assimilation. The post-1920s immigration restrictions were draconian in many ways, but they created time for persistent ethnic divisions to melt into a general unhyphenated Americanism.
The same was true in religion. The steady pressure to conform to American norms, exerted through fair means and foul, eventually persuaded the Mormons to abandon polygamy, smoothing their assimilation into the American mainstream. Nativist concerns about Catholicism’s illiberal tendencies inspired American Catholics to prod their church toward a recognition of the virtues of democracy, making it possible for generations of immigrants to feel unambiguously Catholic and American.

For starters, Douthat does not really explain whether this push for assimilation from the second America was intended or accidental. It seems distinctly odd to argue that the draconian immigration restrictions in the first part of the century were intended to ensure a more cohesive, liberal society. According to this analysis, immigration restrictionists of earlier eras were motivated not by racism or xenophobia (a word Douthat uses earlier) but rather by a wish for a more democratic and unified citizenry. As for religion, were nativist concerns about Catholicism truly motivated by the illiberalism of American Catholics? To say that nativism is motivated by liberalism is almost a contradiction-in-terms.

Douthat might just be making a simple utilitarian point of the 'you-can't-make-an-omelet-without-breaking-some-eggs' variety, but this type of thinking offers no prescriptive help whatsoever. "While the ideals of the first America protect the e pluribus," Douthat writes, "it’s the demands the second America makes of new arrivals that help create the unum." This is a strange way to end a column whose headline refers to "two Americas" (whither the unum, huh?); even worse, it is a misleadingly simple way of approaching a complex subject.