Did the Rev. Jerry Falwell watch the Academy Awards? And if he did, did he see Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a 34- year-old Cambodian refugee, gleefully accept his Oscar? "I thank God -- Buddha -- that I am here tonight," Ngor exulted. Falwell must have slapped his forehead in consternation: Thank who?

Granted there's not an overwhelming number of Americans who call the deity Buddha, but there are still about 4 million of them, and the numbers are growing. Many other Americans are Moslem or Hindu, and there are many others who pray to no one and nothing at all, having rejected religion for whatever reason suits them.

I thought of Ngor because Falwell, who envisions America as a vast private club, has opened his membership rolls to Jews. In the last several months, he's been appearing before Jewish groups, telling them that he repudiates the doctrine that America is a Christian nation. "Now we say Judeo-Christian republic," Falwell has announced. Wonderful. But where does that leave Ngor?

One of the benefits of Falwell's celebrity is that he has spawned a cottage industry devoted to keeping an eye on him. These Falwell watchers are in some disagreement about why he's now granting full citizenship to Jews. It might be, as he has claimed, that he got tolerance or it just might be, as some suspect, that he looked at the results of the last election and decided he had to clean up his act.

It is Falwell, after all, who is given almost universal credit for keeping American Jews overwhelmingly in the Democratic column. Some 70 percent of them voted for Walter Mondale. That was the outcome despite Ronald Reagan's strong support for Israel, his antipathy to quotas and the fact that American Jews, overwhelmingly affluent, benefited from both Reagan's tax reduction program and the economic boom the president claimed as his own. And what Reagan had not done on his own, it seemed, Jesse Jackson would do for him. Between Jackson and his traveling companion, the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, Jews had seemed certain to vote Republican.

Then along came Falwell. At the Republican National Convention in Dallas, he and his cohorts in the Christian right seemed ubiquitous. Over and over, they described America as a "Christian nation," words the president finally uttered himself. That did it. The movement of Jews toward the GOP stalled and then went into reverse. By Election Day, they were back in the Democratic Party and everyone was pointing a finger at Falwell.

But the finger should not be relaxed. It hardly matters for what reason Falwell has now changed his rhetoric and whether his words reflect what he really thinks. What matters is that Falwell continues to envision America as a quasi-religious state. Where once it was just Christian, now it is both Christian and Jewish. The result, though, is the same. By any name, such a state excludes. It withholds 100 percent citizenship from those who are neither Christian nor Jewish, and suggests that their rights are dispensed by the majority rather than being -- to use the word employed in the Declaration of Independance -- unalienable.

History affirms that the American ethic is largely a Christian one. That's made evident in everything from the obnoxious to the lofty, from blue laws to the very laws of the land. But a part of that ethic, too, is secularism -- the conviction that religion is essentially a personal matter and its public role ought to be limited. Falwell, for instance, is entitled to his strong and, to my mind, repugnant views on homosexuality. But if they were translated into law, they would become clear violations of civil liberties.

The best you can say is that Falwell's heading in the right direction. But his new position is not a repudiation of his Christian-nation doctrine, but a modification of it -- an expansion not of his tolerance, but of the welcome he extends. Now he includes Jews in his community of true Americans. But the limited invitation is not his to offer and in no way changes the nature of America. It is a nation in which the majority of the people are Christians or Jews; it is not, as Falwell says, a Judeo-Christian nation. That's a distinction that makes a difference. Americans like Dr. Ngor thank Buddha for it.