Post-Protestant WASPs

First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, February 2016 | Go to article overview

Post-Protestant WASPs


The notion that we've become more egalitarian over the last two generations is hogwash. All of our presidents since Ronald Reagan are Ivy League graduates of one sort or another. Half of the men who lost to them in the general elections are as well. All the current Justices on the Supreme Court went to Yale or Harvard law schools. The same remarkable concentration is true in business, especially if we consider the greater Ivies, the top tier of schools that includes the University of Chicago, Duke, Stanford, and other highly selective institutions, as well as tony liberal arts colleges.

Gone are the Lyndon Johnsons and Tip O'Neills, men who ascended to power without assistance from establishment institutions such as Harvard or Yale. Gone are cigarchomping labor bosses like George Meany, who started out as a plumber in the Bronx. The most powerful union head in recent years was Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.

We're told that these once WASP-dominated institutions and the elite they produce are multicultural, and that this demonstrates that our country's leadership class is more diverse than it once was. That's an illusion. A monoculture sits atop our society, more so than at any point in our history. We're being ruled by post-ethnic, post-Protestant WASPs. And they're now more powerful than the old WASP elite once was.

White Anglo-Saxon Protestant was always a bit of a misnomer. Some of the richest and most powerful men of the early twentieth century were Scots-Irish, not AngloSaxon. People of German, Dutch, and French Huguenot descent were also prominent. Roosevelt is not an AngloSaxon name. But we live at a distance from Europe, so in the American context, all Protestants with Northern European backgrounds were viewed as WASPs. Well into the second half of the twentieth century, WASPs held the important positions in finance. They headed up the major companies, had top roles in government, and were university presidents.

The rest of society largely accepted this predominance. The Irish Catholics in Boston and elsewhere rebelled more than a century ago, continuing their tradition of anti-English solidarity. But American culture as a whole revolved around the WASP center. Joseph Kennedy sent his sons to Harvard, not Boston College. Jewish celebrities, and others with Eastern European or Italian surnames, adopted WASP stage names: Irving Berlin, George Burns, Rock Hudson, Dean Martin.

The Protestantism in WASP culture was not an afterthought. Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Congregational churches were once important institutions. Collectively, they were called "mainline Protestantism," a designation meant to signal the central, authoritative role that these churches played in shaping the Christian consensus in America. Mainline Christianity was liberal, not in the narrow, political sense we usually give to the word, but in its broader meaning. Being "liberal" in religion meant being open and flexible when it came to dogma, earnest and sincere in morality, and confident that the leading edges of innovation in America are part of God's greater plan for all mankind.

Young people familiar with the political culture of the last few decades, in which religious conservatives have been at odds with secular liberals, often have difficulty grasping the fact that, until recently, all the progressive movements in American politics were promoted and heavily influenced by the mainline Protestant churches. This was not only true of the civil rights movement, but earlier movements as well. Abolitionism was a church-based political movement. More than one hundred years ago, the Social Gospel did much to prepare the American capitalist class to accept and support the modern welfare state. Liberal WASPs led the most ambitious effort of social engineering in American history, Prohibition. They also promoted pacifism, disarmament, and world government after World War I; after World War II, they got behind America's Cold War role as defender of the free world. …

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