The Incredible Shrinking WASP

“The Triumphant Decline of the WASP” reads the title of a provocative recent piece in […]

David Zahl / 6.28.10

The Triumphant Decline of the WASP” reads the title of a provocative recent piece in The NY Times by Noah Feldman, which boldly argues that the now Protestant-less composition of the Supreme Court  represents a victory of establishment virtue. And by “establishment,” Feldman is referring specifically to White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPs). Needless to say, it’s a tough sell – but also one that hits close to home.

I’ve always felt that one of the hallmarks of cultural Protestantism, the picture to the right notwithstanding, is a de-emphasis on ethnic identity markers (a value implicit in the column), not to mention an allergy to public praise in general. Detached from their theological underpinnings, these traits can be a bit self-defeating – so much so that I’m frankly surprised they’re being recognized here. Regardless, I highly doubt the progenitors in question would see their dethronement in such, um, pastel colors. They might instead attribute the downward mobility to the dilution (and virtual inversion) of their values, over generations, via the notorious country club triumvirate of class prerogatives, workaholism and a-religious materialism. Whit Stillman said everything that needs to be said on the subject already in his film Metropolitan, with equal affection yet considerably less naivete than Feldman. First-hand knowledge doesn’t hurt either.

Fully acknowledging the supremely shaky ground we’re on here, not to mention the irony of endorsing anything resembling a meritocracy, there is, perhaps, a small element of Reformation pride to the diminishment, however unconscious it may have been. And while it might be a tad immature for the post-mortem (at least if Mbird has anything to say about it!), it nevertheless represents an opportunity to connect the dots when it comes to egalitarianism, maybe even to draw some inspiration from the lingering scent of Gospel-inspired liberty. Of course, if it’s all a load of nonsense, it’s still nice to have Protestantism associated with culture for once, as opposed to the profound lack of it. So here’s to ribbon belts, shabby chic and the oh-so-tasteful pursuit of self-preservation.

Satisfaction with our national progress should not make us forget its authors: the very Protestant elite that founded and long dominated our nation’s institutions of higher education and government, including the Supreme Court. Unlike almost every other dominant ethnic, racial or religious group in world history, white Protestants have ceded their socioeconomic power by hewing voluntarily to the values of merit and inclusion, values now shared broadly by Americans of different backgrounds. The decline of the Protestant elite is actually its greatest triumph.

When discussing the white elite that exercised such disproportionate power in American history, we are talking about a subgroup, mostly of English or Scots-Irish origin, whose ancestors came to this land in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their forebears fought the American Revolution and wrote the Constitution, embedding in it a distinctive set of beliefs of Protestant origin, including inalienable rights and the separation of church and state.

Education was probably more important to the way the Protestant elite defined itself, which is why the opening of the great American universities has had such an epochal effect in changing the demographics of American elites. Another key source was the ideal of fair play, imported from the ideology of the English public schools, but practiced far more widely in the United States than in the class-ridden mother country.

Together, these social beliefs in equality undercut the impulse toward exclusive privilege that every successful group indulges on occasion. A handful of exceptions for admission to societies, clubs and colleges — trivial in and of themselves — helped break down barriers more broadly. This was not just a case of an elite looking outside itself for rejuvenation: the inclusiveness of the last 50 years has been the product of sincerely held ideals put into action.

The spread of Ivy League style is therefore not a frivolous matter. Today the wearing of the tweed is not anachronism or assimilation, but a mark of respect for the distinctive ethnic group that opened its doors to all — an accomplishment that must be remembered, acknowledged and emulated.