News analysis
Illegal aliens and culture

April 14, 2006
Fred Hutchison
RenewAmerica analyst

In an earlier essay, I called for a national conversation on illegal aliens. Thankfully, we are finally having that conversation and debate in the Congress, the press, and other public forums.

One question that is being asked is whether heavy illegal immigration from Mexico and Latin America is good for America. This is a complex question and it is being considered from the aspect of politics, economics, security, and compassion. Oddly, the effect of illegal aliens on American culture has been somewhat neglected.

We shall focus mainly upon the cultural question in this essay. First, we shall consider the difference between conservative patriotism and liberal patriotism and how that affects one's views of illegal immigration. Then we shall consider family values, the work ethic, intellectual culture, cultural tribalism, the social fabric, and the melting pot. Finally, we shall turn to history and consider the experience of the ancient Romans in assimilating people of other cultures.

The patriotism of a conservative

The patriotism of a cultural conservative is different in kind and quality from the patriotism of a liberal. Both perspectives can affect one's view of cultural change and thereby have a significant influence on how one views illegal aliens from another culture.

Many conservatives instinctively oppose cultural change because of a deep love of the American past, and the enchanted, nostalgic memories of the golden America of one's childhood. The desire to preserve the America of blessed memory has great romantic appeal to cultural conservatives and has a formative influence on the budding patriotism of a young conservative. When President Ronald Reagan spoke of the mystical quality of his patriotism, he dropped tantalizing clues about his culturally conservative instincts.

The realization that the America of memory had a culture that was more wholesome and life-affirming than the decadent and dysfunctional culture of today prompts the cultural conservative to seek cultural restoration and renewal. The intelligent cultural conservative is in favor of cultural change if the changes are part of a conservative program of restoration. If we had an essentially Christian culture in the past and have an essentially pagan culture in the present, then a devout Christian can be a cultural conservative seeking both cultural restoration and spiritual renewal.

How then would a patriotic cultural conservative view massive illegal immigration by people from another culture? He would view it as the source of cultural change of a kind that may be in conflict with his dream of cultural restoration. As one who deeply loves America, he would have protective instincts about America, and stand on guard against an unregulated illegal invasion of a cultural people group who do not share his love for America.

If the loyalties of immigrants to their own native culture are expressed as hostility to American culture, immigrants will lose all claim to sympathy from an American cultural conservative. Such hostility was implicit in the first recent wave of marches by Hispanics displaying Mexican flags and signs saying that they intend to "take back" the American Southwest and claim it for their own cultural and political designs. This was a public relations disaster for the Hispanic cause. It lost much of the sympathy the marchers might have had from cultural conservatives. The astute organizers of subsequent marches banned Mexican flags and handed out American flags to the marchers to improve the tattered public relations image of the marchers.

It's important to remember that some cultural conservatives have nostalgic memories of immigrants eager to become Americans--but that these memories confer no favors upon those who sneak into the country and disrespect our laws. Cultural conservatives who are proud to live in an immigrant nation are alarmed by those who intend to create insular cultural enclaves in America and resist assimilation into the mainstream culture.

The Hispanic immigrant who comes to America legally, with the purpose of becoming a citizen, probably is ready to place his loyalty to his adopted country above his loyalty to the land of his birth in Latin America. The illegal alien who sneaks across the border for higher wages is probably Hispanic in his heart and soul and is only an American in a pragmatic and opportunistic sense. It was the sentiments of illegal aliens and the dysfunctional Hispanic ghetto that produced the Mexican flags and the slogans of Hispanic imperialism in the early marches.

Are we to regard one as an American purely on the economic calculations of illegal aliens and the economic calculations American business who want cheap labor? If so, it would debase what it means to be an American in the eyes of a cultural conservative.

The patriotism of a liberal

Many liberals, by contrast, have a form of patriotism that is very different from the patriotism of cultural conservatives. If a liberal has a visionary dream of the future and he sees America at the vanguard of realizing that dream, his patriotism for America will follow that concept. Ronald Reagan got some liberal votes because he managed to sound certain notes about America as the source of mankind's hopes and dreams for the future. This is the America that Lincoln called "The last best hope of earth."

"Thou too sail on O Ship of State! / Sail on O Union strong and great! / Humanity with all its fears, / With all its hopes of future years, / Is hanging breathless in thy fate!" (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Building of the Ship)

America, as the last best hope of a suffering world, is the haven of the refugee fleeing oppression and desperate poverty. Therefore, liberal patriotism carries a built-in sympathy for the poor Hispanic immigrant.

That being the case, why is it that some liberals have been sounding strangely unpatriotic tones since the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960's and 70's? During the counter-cultural revolution, the liberal hopes of "progress" were shaken and the assumption that America is the hope of the world and the vanguard of cultural progress met with bitter disillusionment. Like a divorced woman who once loved but now hates her ex-husband because he failed to fulfill her dreams, some liberals hate America for disappointing their hopes and dreams of a visionary future.

Thus, we observe the vulnerable points of liberal patriotism. That patriotism is not really the love of a country, it is the love of a dream. The woman who hates her ex-husband might never have loved the man, but loved the dream that she identified with the man. In order to restore a healthy culture of marriage, we need to learn to love a person more than we love our dreams. In order to restore authentic patriotism, we need to love a country more than we love our wishful dreams about the future of the country.

Steadfast patriotism

Do conservatives love their vision of the American past more than they love their country? Although this can happen, it is rarely the case. Enchanted memories are associated with specific times, places, persons, and communities. Communities of memory are still places on the map. We can still go to those places to find traces of the remembered past. Although the last shots of the battle of Gettysburg were fired 143 years ago, when we visit the site of the battle, we feel that these are hallowed grounds.

The cultural conservative loves his country like the Israelites of old loved their land. "Thou shalt arise and have mercy upon Zion...for Thy servants take pleasure in her stones, and favor the dust thereof." (Psalm 102:14) When a servant of the Lord is providentially placed in a land that God has blessed, an uncanny love of the land enters the heart of that servant.

When forcibly taken to Babylon, the Israelite's love of their homeland remained steadfast. "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.... How shall we sing the lord's song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy." (Excerpts, Psalm 137)

The patriotism of the cultural conservative is linked to his God, his land, his ancestors, and his memories. Therefore, his patriotism is steadfast in times of trial and does not fade amidst the distractions of prosperity. In contrast, liberal patriotism, connected to the hopes and dreams of an imaginary future, can be disconnected from God, country, family, and memory, and can be shaken by tribulation and disappointment.

As pertains to illegal aliens, liberals are sympathetic to the desperate hopes and dreams of the immigrants, and have compassion for their predicament. No one doubts that these are admirable sentiments. However, if a liberal gives these considerations precedent over the welfare of his nation, he has broken faith with the country of his birth to which he owes fidelity and has shown ingratitude for a multitude of blessings. If he does not care if his country is injured because he is bitter about his disappointed utopian hopes, then his indifference to or malice for his country is insufferable.

It is scarcely necessary to point out that an illegal alien who is marching and carrying a Mexican flag will have no goose bumps and feel no minstrel raptures if he visits Gettysburg. He will not gaze upon American soil and "take pleasure in her stones and favor the dust thereof."

Religion and family values

A cultural conservative will not lack in sympathy for Hispanic immigrants if he thinks they have good family values. In spite of a criminal element among illegal aliens, and Hispanic ghettoes and the tendency of Hispanic teens to form lawless gangs in large cities, Hispanic immigrants on the whole have positive family values rooted in their Spanish-Catholic heritage. They clearly care about marriage, children, the extended family, and their community. However, it is not clear whether these traits are as true of illegal aliens as they are of legal immigrants.

Hispanics set aside more time for personal conversation among family, friends, and neighbors than do many middle class Americans. Their communication skills might be a vital contribution in an America community in which the arts of conversation are fading. Another cultural fringe benefit of the presence of Hispanics is that Latino music is upbeat and much better in quality than the wretched rock and rap music of our debased youth culture.

There is a religious renewal going on among Catholics in the American south, and Hispanic Catholics are an important part of that renewal. As with many immigrant groups before them, when Hispanics set down roots in North American soil, their religion blossoms as it never did in their homeland. Hispanic Catholics are destined to be more Catholic in America than they ever were in Mexico.

I have no definitive explanation for why religion sprouts when it is transplanted in America soil, like magic beans planted in an enchanted forest. Historically, the phenomenon of the flourishing of transplanted religion in America is uncanny. There are a few places like Iona, Monte Casino, Notre Dame of Paris, or the Church of the Nativity where a spiritual presence seems to infuse the air, but the sense of blessing does not extend to the countryside. Only America, among all the nations of the world, has spiritual fertility spread across the land.

Most of various sects of the Christian creed have prospered more here than they did on the old sod. It has been this way since the Pilgrims came to Plymouth, the Puritans came to Massachusetts Bay, the Anglicans came to Virginia, the Quakers and Lutheran pietists came to Pennsylvania, the Catholics came to Maryland, and the Scotts-Irish Presbyterians came to Appalachia. I speculate, like many before me have speculated, that God has blessed this land and set it aside as a special preserve for faith and worship.

This phenomenon of transplanted spirituality is happening again with Latino Catholics in the southern states. Does this phenomenon by itself legitimize the heavy immigration of illegal aliens? Not necessarily. There is no precedent in American history to guide us concerning the spiritual implications of massive illegal immigration. Why not wait and see if a revival of faith occurs among illegal aliens in the same way it has occurred among legal Hispanic immigrants before we open the flood gates?

The work ethic and intellectual culture

Hispanics have a better work ethic and are more entrepreneurial than many other underclass groups. They are not afraid of rolling up their sleeves, getting their hands dirty, and working up a sweat. However, the children of illegal aliens as a whole do poorly in school, and are a burden upon America's sagging intellectual culture.

The growing enclaves of illegal aliens will put increased pressure on government, business, and the education establishment to establish a bilingual society. That might stimulate a badly needed improvement in the mediocre linguistic skills of many Americans. However, it would also encourage cultural tribalism.

Cultural tribalism

A bilingual society is apt to split a society into tribes based on language. Poorly educated, inarticulate illegal aliens are particularly prone to this kind of tribalism. The cost of tribalism is the loss of cultural harmony and political stability. We have observed this phenomenon in Ireland, Holland, Israel, France (with the Muslim separatists), Spain (with the Basque separatists), and Canada (with the French separatists). The militant Hispanic separatists in America are already on the march in California and Texas. Their tribal spirit is alarming to the cultural conservative.

The Democrats have used identity politics to convert civil rights to special privileges for protected interest groups. The groups for which they seek special privileges are blacks, Hispanics, women, gays, the handicapped, and atheists, in that approximate order of priority. The black community is their most important political client because the black vote, delivered in a solid block for Democrats, is indispensable to the election of many Democratic office holders. A rapidly growing tribal block of Hispanic voters is destined to become more important to Democrats than is the black vote. A bilingual society will hasten the political tribalization of America.

The social fabric

Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk argued that a delicate social fabric evolves over many generations that make possible an elegant culture, virtuous cultural mores, and an agreeable way of life. The social fabric thus embodies the wisdom of centuries and the experience of countless lives. I agree with this thesis for a Christian culture in which divine providence is weaving golden strands into the social fabric. However, a non-Christian or post-Christian culture can easily assimilate dark and rotten strands into its social fabric. A glance at certain pagan societies instructs us that evil as well as good can be woven into a social fabric.

Tragically, American society shows many dysfunctional signs of a post-Christian culture. For example, the idea that sex should be exclusively for marriage has been honored by the Christian culture of the West for a thousand years. Now it has been degraded to a minority opinion. C. S. Lewis said that stock responses about the virtues used to be thickly grafted into Western culture like the fruit bearing branches on a tree. Now the stock responses are stripped away, leaving the tree of culture unfruitful.

The social fabric has somewhat unraveled in this era of hyper-individualism and moral and cultural relativism. Many individualistic Americans now doubt that there is such thing as a social fabric. On the political left, many argue that there should not be a social fabric. They prefer political coalitions of cultural tribes and identity groups.

When one stops believing in the social fabric, one also stops believing in the melting pot in which immigrants gradually become Americans in the cultural sense. If the melting pot disappears, the ghettoes of cultural ethnic groups become the wretched alternative. The repair and renewed weaving of the torn social fabric is necessary before we can once again culturally assimilate large numbers of immigrants of other cultures.

Putting Humpty Dumpty back together

Once Humpty Dumpty falls, it is difficult to put the pieces back together. Once the social fabric unravels, it is difficult to weave it back together. It is extremely difficult to knit together a unifying social fabric in the face of a weak marriages, unsupervised children, the decline of community, and the rise of antisocial, selfish, hyper-individualism.

Confucius (551-479 B.C.) was the father of a Chinese social model that lasted two thousand years. He gave instructions for appropriate behavior for every situation in life. For example, he described how children should conduct themselves in the presence of parents and grandparents, how a young man should behave towards a young woman, how a disciple should act in the presence of a sage, how court officials of different ranks should interact with one another, plus prescriptions for hundreds of other social situations.

The closest thing that Europe had to a Confucius was Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529 A.D.), who wrote The Courtier, which was widely used as a handbook for how a gentleman should behave for four hundred years. At the same time, the middle class society of the West relied mainly upon the family and the social fabric to provide patterns of appropriate behavior.

We no longer read The Courtier, and our social fabric is in shreds thanks to forty years of counter-cultural rebellion. Where then do we turn to learn how to behave and to rebuild the social fabric? We turn to God. Only the grace of God can make a project of cultural renewal successful. We do not know how to put Humpty Dumpty back together, but God does. Therefore, rebuilding the culture is ultimately a work of faith.

What does this have to do with illegal aliens? It has everything to do with whether we can absorb large numbers of them or not.

Strangers in a strange land

Arguably, the social fabric is now too weak to absorb large numbers of illegal aliens and turn them into Americans. The once-powerful melting pot is no longer up to the task.

The existence of cultural ghettoes created by massive immigration does not pose a threat to the majority culture if that culture has a strong social fabric. However, such ghettoes are very threatening to a social fabric that is unraveling.

Illegal aliens feel like strangers in a strange land if the social fabric of that land is weak. Look to the alienated Muslim teens in France and England for an idea of how outraged and alienated a tribalized minority culture can be when the social fabric of the majority culture is too frail to provide a place where cultural outsiders can find a foothold. One can learn to work with a solid culture, but one cannot deal with a shape-shifting pseudo-culture. In today's world, the problem of racism is not as difficult a problem for minority cultures as is the problem of a dysfunctional majority culture.

The question of whether the illegal immigrants are culturally unfit to come here is almost a secondary question. The primary question is whether we have the vital, resilient social fabric to provide them with a new cultural home. If not, they are doomed to wander in a cultural wilderness in America, while their true cultural home will remain forever in Mexico, or Honduras, or Nicaragua, or Bolivia. It is no accident that the Hispanic marchers in Los Angeles brandished anti-American and pro-Mexican signs. In their heart of hearts, they were Mexican and not American.

The end of assimilation

In like manner, it is no accident that the black underclass has stopped assimilating, but has potentially become a permanent counter-culture. Even if all racism ended today, members of the alienated black community would have nowhere to go in the American cultural wilderness. Even those with decent jobs sometimes return to the ghetto because man must have a home and a community, however wretched.

The America of yesterday had a robust national and community culture, and millions of immigrants quickly became Americans in heart and soul. The great cultural melting pot had amazing power to transform people from every nation into cultural Americans who were busting with patriotism for their adopted country.

During the Reagan revolution, many blue-collar ethnic people turned Republican, because they were too thoroughly Americanized to remain ethnic subcultures that had been captured and balkanized by the Democratic Party. New immigration is the hope of the Democrats and the Americanization of old immigrant groups is the Democrats' nightmare. When cultural assimilation ends because of cultural decomposition, the future will belong to the Democrats.

Roman culture and the assimilation of barbarians

When the culture of the Roman Empire was vigorous and virtuous, the integration of barbarian tribes into the Empire was generally successful. In those days, the barbarians were eager to imitate Roman culture. For centuries, many groups were struggling to get into the empire and become Romans, a trend not to the liking of many Romans, but which they gradually gave way to for pragmatic and political reasons.

When the Roman Empire later became culturally decadent, young Romans were eager to imitate barbarian culture. Simultaneously, semi-barbarous tribes on the marches that once admired Rome and sought the shelter of the empire became increasingly hostile to Roman rule.

The present American cult of musical primitivism is reminiscent of decadent Roman youth who wore the clothes and affected the manners of barbarians. The hostility to American culture by the illegal aliens who are marching in the streets is reminiscent of the hostility of semi-barbarous tribes to Rome when the Roman culture was decadent.

The golden age of Roman culture

Contrary to popular belief nourished by Hollywood myths, the golden era of Roman culture and virtue was not during the Roman Republic. Romans of the Republic were as tough as nails because of constant warfare. A larger part of the empire was conquered by the stern, disciplined Romans of the Republic than was conquered by the Emperors. The dour citizen-soldiers of the Republic were loaded with military and civic virtues, but they were harsh and implacable. Rome had an unstable society, deep divisions in the social fabric, severe revolutions, and a culture that was inferior to that of the Greeks.

Despite the myths of Hollywood, the golden age of Roman culture occurred during the second century A.D. when Rome was a great empire. The moral and cultural renewal of the empire after a time of decadence is a story every American needs to hear. If cultural and moral decadence can be reversed in ancient Rome, it can be reversed in America.

The Julio-Claudian emperors (27-68 A.D.) ruled at a time of moral depravity. Depraved pagan cults flooded into the capital from the provinces. The five emperors of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty--Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero--and their families ranged from eccentric to wicked to mentally ill with delusions.

The Flavian Dynasty (69-96 A.D.)--Vespasius, Titus, and Domitian--represented a marked improvement in administrative and military skills. The Flavians restored stability to Rome after a time of severe upheavals involving the Julio-Claudians and their enemies.

The "five good emperors" of the Nervan-Antonian dynasty (96-180 A.D.)--Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius--presided over the golden age of Rome. It was a time of moral and cultural renewal, vast building projects, great wealth, peace, and social order.

"The second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valour. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines." (Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.)

This was the era when many nations, tribes, and groups were eager to get under the protection of the empire and become culturally Roman. Once they were included in the empire, they continually petitioned an annoyed Roman Senate to elevate their status to that of Roman citizens. Everywhere people tried to imitate the culture of Rome. The Roman melting pot was successful in transforming the people of many ethnic groups into cultural Romans. The entire Western Mediterranean region became culturally Latin and much of it has remained so for the duration.

The secrets of Roman cultural renewal

How was Rome able to recover from the dark years of Julio-Claudian rule, and within a few generations reach the meridian glory of a great civilization? The first step was the recovery of order by the Flavian Emperors. Chaos on the marches of the empire had been ignored by the decadent Julio-Claudians, and law-and-order on the borders was reestablished by the Flavians. Civil wars, blood purges, and civil insurrections in Rome and various other places that cursed the Julio-Claudian regime were decisively curtailed by the Flavian emperors.

The second step in Roman cultural revival was a revolution in education. Marcus Quintilian (35–96 A.D.) was the leading schoolmaster of Rome under the Flavians. His program emphasized both the intellectual and moral education of the sons of Roman aristocrats. Quintilian brought a systematic approach to the Seven Liberal Arts, although he was most famous for his teaching of oratory, one of the seven arts. The aristocrats of the early Nervan-Antonian era were educated by teachers who were themselves students of Quintilian. His outstanding system of education was adopted by schools for the Christian gentlemen during the early Italian Renaissance, a model that was followed by elite prep schools in England and America until World War II.

There was a rapidly developing interest in philosophy by the brilliantly educated Aristocrats. Stoicism was popular among Roman aristocrats. Neoplatonism was popular among the Greeks of that era. Both Stoicism and Neoplatonism emphasized the development of the manly virtues and self-denial.

The two greatest Stoic philosophers were Epictetus (55–135 A.D.), and Marcus Aurelius (121–180 A.D.). Epictetus was a Greek who learned philosophy as the young slave of a rich Roman. The famous school of philosophy that Epictetus established later in his life was visited by Emperor Hadrian. Marcus Aurelius, a great Stoic philosopher who is still widely read today, was the fifth of the five great emperors.

During this time, the old paganistic cults were gradually losing the hold on the urban citizens of the empire. The pantheist tone of Stoicism and Neoplatonism of the aristocrats was incompatible with a robust polytheism. To fill the spiritual vacuum, common people increasingly turned to Christianity, especially in the great metropolitan cities. Originally, this trend was more notable in the Eastern half of the empire than the West. Christianity had a salutary effect of the moral tone of the Roman world. A healthy social fabric developed that made a great Roman melting pot possible.

A cultural decline of the Western half of the empire began in the third century A.D. and marked the beginning of a time of troubles. The inability to continue assimilating large masses of semi-barbarous people increased as the cultural vitality of the Roman World decreased. By the time of the fall of Rome in the fourth century, the decadent Romans were no more civilized in some respects than the semi-Latinized German tribes who were at war with Rome. In personal honor and sexual morality, the German tribes were superior to the decadent Romans.


America's capacity to economically assimilate Hispanic immigrants is now far greater than its ability to culturally assimilate them. Unless we curtail the influx of illegal aliens, we are doomed to have semi-permanent Hispanic cultural ghettoes and a time of troubles like Rome had in the third century. However, if we can renovate our culture and restore the broken melting pot, we can once again transform multitudes of immigrants into Americans once more, just as Rome transformed the Western Mediterranean world into a cohesive Latin civilization.

The cultural healing and strengthening of Rome in the late first and second centuries gives us hope for America. The educational revolution in Rome can be reproduced in our country. Christian schools devoted to the study of the classics have been established around the country in recent years. See for details. The revival of philosophy among Roman aristocrats might also have an American Christian counterpart. The philosophy departments at Talbot Seminary and Calvin College are world-class.

Everyone can participate in America's cultural renewal by going to our great public libraries and reading books that challenge the mind, enlarge the heart, and impart moral and cultural ideals.

RenewAmerica analyst Fred Hutchison also writes a column for RenewAmerica.

© 2006 Fred Hutchison

The views expressed by RenewAmerica analysts are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.

They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31