With the confirmation hearings for Elena Kagan underway, Noah Feldman’s op-ed in the New York Times last week looks at the expected makeup of the next Court, comprised of six Catholics and three Jews. He meditates on the idea that there will be no Protestants on the nation’s highest bench, and how we as a nation got to this point. He reminds readers that the white Protestant elite founded most of this country’s institutions, including the Supreme Court, and proposes the notion that, “The decline of the Protestant elite is actually its greatest triumph.” His thesis is this: the WASP elite controlled the means of power in this country; they eventually opened up their exclusive universities to others, thus extending these groups power through education. We are seeing the results now, especially on the Court, and we should be grateful for their magnanimity, he says.
While Feldman, a fascinating scholar who wrote a book I loved in grad school, "Divided by God," recalls some of the oppression caused by the Protestant elite in this country, he is too quick to glaze over the truly horrific climate that many groups faced (and, with the immigration debate looming, that some still face). Sure, opening up Princeton, Yale, Harvard and the like to non-Protestants was a kind gesture, but we mustn’t lose sight of the heroic struggles that the working poor, blacks, Latinos, and other groups made as they strove for equality. I suspect that the reasons why Catholics and Jews make up the entirety of the Court, and that our institutions of higher education, government, business, and society as a whole is more diverse has less to do with the kindness of aging WASPs than with a desire for success passed on from one generation to the next. The decline of white-Protestant elitism is certainly something worth noting, if not celebrating the advancement of equality, but we should focus less on what we, as Catholics, were given, and more on what our forebears earned for us today.