Twilight of the WASPs?

White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) men are supposed to hold the reins of power in the United States. All but two presidents have been WASP males; almost all Supreme Court justices; most leaders of the House and Senate.

Today everyone knows America has a black president for the first time. It’s also the first time in American history that neither the president nor the vice president are WASPs. Of the six apparent frontrunners for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination to oppose Barack Obama, just one is a WASP. Of the four leaders of Congress, only one is a WASP. The Supreme Court not only has no WASP, it has no Protestant.

Is this the twilight of the WASPs?

Consider the absence of WASP males at the top of public life. The president is African American, the vice president is Catholic. Current favorites to top the Republican 2012 ticket are Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, Mormons; Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, women; Newt Gingrich, a Catholic and Tim Pawlenty, a Baptist.

That makes Pawlenty the sole WASP male at the pinnacle of the current national-leadership scramble, and his claim to WASP-hood is somewhat tenuous. Pawlenty attends a Minnesota church that belongs to the hardline Baptist General Convention, which may or may not be right about faith but definitely is not a mainstream Protestant denomination, such as the American Baptist Convention.

In Congress, Speaker of the House John Boehner is Catholic, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is female, while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is Mormon. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is the sole WASP male in top leadership. At least, he probably is. In interviews 20 years ago, McConnell described himself as a mainstream Baptist. Recently, McConnell has dropped mention of religion from his official bio.

At the Supreme Court, six justices are Catholic, three are Jewish. Four of the Court’s members — Ruth Ginsberg, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Clarence Thomas — are reverse twofers, neither white male nor Protestant. When Louis Brandeis (first Jewish justice) was confirmed in 1916, and Thurgood Marshall (first African American justice) joined the Court in 1967, and Sandra O’Connor (first female justice) joined in 1981, each had a shockwave impact on establishment politics. Today, if Barack Obama nominated a WASP male to the Supreme Court, that’s what would be considered shocking.

Surely the overall situation would have amazed Edward Baltzell, whose 1964 book The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America popularized the term WASP. Baltzell was a consummate member of that class: born into an old-money Philadelphia family, raised in the Episcopal church, shipped off in youth to an expensive boarding school, then on to the Ivy League. He styled himself “E. Digby Baltzell” because it sounded more right-you-are-old-chap. Becoming a professor at Penn, he studied the Social Register, once the Wikipedia of American snobbery.

When John Kennedy ran for president in 1960, his Catholic faith — his failure to be a WASP — initially was a source of controversy among voters. If a member of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints is a presidential candidate in 2012, will that be controversial?

Probably not. To some, JFK embodied the centuries of Protestant-Catholic warfare in Europe — Mormonism has no equivalent backstory. The 2012 elections may cause a tedious debate about whether Mormons are Christians: since they consider themselves Christian, that’s good enough for me. Hopefully most voters will assess a Romney or Huntsman candidacy on the merits of whether either seems best for the job.

The political parallel would be not to 1960 but to 1952, when the very WASPy Adlai Stevenson faced Dwight Eisenhower, a Jehovah’s Witness. Like the Latter-Day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses hold some beliefs that make traditionalist Christians scratch their heads. But in 1952, voters were concerned foremost with whether Eisenhower was the best candidate, and that pattern should repeat in 2012. (After being elected, Ike became a Presbyterian, so in a sense he converted to WASP-hood.)

Why are WASP males suddenly knocked off the public pedestal? Perhaps just coincidence. Or maybe it means discrimination against non-WASPs at long last has ended. If the latter, that public debate hasn’t noticed the twilight of the WASP male should be seen as a positive sign.

What if the 2012 White House race pits an African American and a Catholic versus a woman and a Mormon? E. Digby Baltzell would roll over in his grave — but it would be a great day for America. The United States, after all, is a country where how you define yourself matters far more than how society defines you.

Postscript:

Here the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life breaks down American faith affiliations. WASPs must belong to the “mainline” Protestant categories, though this concept can be fuzzy. For instance, Pew classes 7 percent of Americans under “historically black churches” rather than as “mainline Protestant.” Yet most historically black worship is mainline, rooted in traditional theology. Note from Pew data that the Episcopal/Anglican cohort — wellspring of 11 presidents, most of any denomination — is down to just 1.4 percent of the population.

Wondering about me? I belong to one of the country’s sadly few joint Christian-Jewish congregations, and like Sarah Palin, describe myself as “nondenominational Christian.”

[Cross-posted at Reuters.com]

Gregg Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly and the Atlantic. He's also a columnist for ESPN.com.