[Also published at Huffington Post.] Some readers have challenged my assertion that Steve Bannon is an ethnic nationalist, on the premise that Bannon is just defending the Judeo-Christian culture that has helped make America what it is.
I maintain that his ethnic nationalism is proven by his own words and actions.
But I also want to push back on the popular argument that America’s culture is both essentially Judeo-Christian and needs to be defended from foreign influences. American culture is of great value, but this view of it is ahistorical, and encourages the same intolerance that drives ethnic nationalism.
To argue for it is to dispute that America was founded on Enlightenment reason and religious tolerance. That means you have to fight the founders themselves. Here’s Thomas Jefferson, who with James Madison led the writing of the First Amendment:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their “legislature” should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State. (Letter to the Danbury Baptists.)
That “wall of separation” has been cited in Supreme Court rulings on church and state ever since.
That’s not to say that Judeo-Christian values didn’t inform American culture. Of course they did. For example: Old Testament teachings on justice and the law, and Jesus’ teachings on equality and caring for each other — especially strangers.
But centuries of immigration have shown that American culture can be, and is, adopted by anyone who believes in American democracy, whether or not they’re Christians or Jews. (Not that it looks likely Jews would really be given equal status by Bannon, who propounds a distorted version of the Church Militant.)
And there’s more to it than that. Immigrants don’t just assimilate into our culture, they create it.
Without immigrants, there is no American culture.
For example, without African-Americans (whose original immigration was actually an abduction), our music, art, literature, drama, dance, and movies would be very, very different. Even country and bluegrass music — identified so strongly with people of white, Northern European origin — wouldn’t exist without the blues.
So it is with the contributions of cultures from all over the world. The addition of new and different people has continually renewed American culture, making it what it is — a big part of which, in this future-facing land, is what it will be.
If we think of the founding of America as a statement, its subject was Equality.
Its predicate is the history of a nation where all are welcome who swear allegiance to the Constitution.
The Constitution is our true creed.