WASHINGTON — Washington--Sen. Pat Moynihan, D-N.Y., thinks he has spotted an old serpent in today's political garden. ''Nativism!'' he exclaimed when a Senate committee killed a bill that would have authorized a Puerto Rican referendum on that island's political future.
Every president since Truman has affirmed Puerto Rico's right to choose to retain commonwealth status or opt for independence or statehood. The 1988 Republican platform endorsed statehood.
In the resistance to a referendum, Senator Moynihan sees ''nativism, the close associate of racism.'' But not all resistance should be so stigmatized.
Nativism is, with reason, an epithet. Nativist movements proliferated in reaction against the waves of immigration in the 1840s and 1850s. Most immigrants then were Germans and Irish and Catholics (Mr. Moynihan's ancestors).
Xenophobia and religious bigotry (many Protestant immigrants quickly became violent nativists) fueled the growth of the Know-Nothing Party. (Members were supposedly sworn to answer all political questions by saying, ''I know nothing about it.'' Clearly nativists always have had uneasy consciences in this nation of immigrants.) In 1854, several governors and 75 congressmen were elected with Know-Nothing affiliation.
There were anti-immigrant urban riots and attempts to legislate a 21-year residency requirement for naturalization. Liquor, thundered Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, ''fills our prisons with Irish culprits, and makes the gallows hideous with so many Catholic murderers.'' A recrudescence of nativism in the 1920s coincided with the revival of the Ku Klux Klan and resulted in the National Origins Act, severely limiting immigration, especially from southern Europe and Asia.
But the ugly passions of the past are not dominating today's thinking about Puerto Rico. Today's question is not whether Puerto Ricans belong in American society. Of course they do. Several million live on the mainland. The quite different question is: Does Puerto Rico, a distinct cultural entity, belong in the federal union?
It was thrilling to read recent census reports that by 1990 one in four Americans had an African, Asian, Hispanic or American Indian ancestry. That is up from one in five in 1980. It marks the most pronounced change in America's racial composition in this century.
Furthermore, because 19th-century immigration was overwhelmingly European, whereas today's immigrants come primarily from Latin American and Asian nations (the Asian component of America's population soared 107.8 percent in the 1980s), the 1980s brought more cultural diversity than any other decade in American history. America still welcomes invigorating infusions of immigrants who are eager to become Americans.
American citizenship is a citizenship of ideas. For immigrants, it flows from an act of individual affirmation. Immigrants become citizens by personal assents. But a collective choice by a distinct cultural community like Puerto Rico is problematic.
Diversity -- e pluribus unum -- is America's boast. But from the Soviet Union to Yugoslavia to Lebanon to Canada and elsewhere, the world is replete with cautionary examples of kinds of diversities that are incompatible with the unity requisite for happy nationhood.
Puerto Rico's religious and political values present no obstacles to statehood. However, language, which is the carrier and conditioner of all culture, is another matter.
Puerto Rico is a Spanish-speaking community. Sixty percent of Puerto Ricans do not speak English. An America with Puerto Rico as a state would be bilingual in a way which, in spite of various accommodations for today's immigrants, America today is not.
Bilingualism would inevitably be institutionalized to a new degree and in new ways within this nation. Bilingualism denies the link between citizenship and a shared culture. Already we have gone too far, even to bilingual ballots, which proclaim that people can exercise the most public of rights while being apart from public life.
Americans should say diverse things, but should say them in a common language that allows universal participation in the conversation. Most immigrants want to learn English. Nativists have generally been wrong: Immigrants want to become as American as possible as quickly as possible. But would an entire island people hasten to make secondary the Spanish language that is central to their 400 years of experience as a Spanish and Caribbean community?
Puerto Rico's per-capita income is $5,825, half that of the poorest state (Mississippi, $11,724) and a quarter that of the richest (Connecticut, $25,001). Perhaps half -- the poorest half -- of Puerto Rico's population would gain from statehood because of enhanced access to federal welfare services. But statehood would nullify the tax break that subsidizes many U.S. corporations that operate there. Such considerations matter, but this issue comes to a vote, there or here, the hands raised for or against statehood should not hold calculators on which the material benefits have been finely computed. The important calculations are of cultural costs and benefits.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.