What Do We Owe to the Protestant Elite?

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.

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James Lindsay
7 years 9 months ago
This is probably the first time that none of the elected leaders of this country is a WASP, since Obama, though Protestant, is not white and the President Pro Tempore, though Methodist, is not either. The Speaker and the Vice President are both Catholic.

Hillary Clinton seems to be the ranking WASP in the line of succession.

On the Congressional side, Harry Reid is a Mormon (with Dick Durban - a Catholic - waiting in the wings), Mitch McConnell is a Baptist, Jon Kyl is Presbyterian, Steny Hoyer is a Baptist, Jim Clyburn is AME, John Boehner is Catholic, and Eric Cantor is Jewish.
7 years 9 months ago
Well if we get this nominee for the supreme court it will be a dark day for America.  What have we sunk to.  She left a sound bite that will follow her forever.  When asked if she was the one who authored the document that changed the Clinton administration strategy for fighting the partial birth abortion ban, she continued to avoid saying it was her document.  Eventually when pressed on the issue after several questions, she would not say it was her memo but only finally admitting that it was her handwriting.  Pathetic.
She also avoided similar questions last year when asked if the law she was supporting could potentially ban books.  She would not say the law would not allow the banning of books.  She is a piece of work and the way things are set up, she will pass.
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 9 months ago
I'm wondering if it is not the members of the Senate Judicialy Committee who are the pieces of work.  They repeatedly insist that she keep politics out of her judicial evaluations, yet they obviously insert politics into evaluating her.
Jack Anliker
7 years 9 months ago
We don't owe the "protestant elite" anything.  We owe our ancestors for overcoming WASP discrimination to provide more opportunities for our children.  My ancestors came to the USA to get away from being the 'other' in England and continental Europe.  The Revolutionary War was fought by many ethnic groups but this history was written by the "protestant elite" who promoted their ethnic group.  The USA has a much more balanced teaching of history now except in Texas where the "protestant elite" still holds on to power.  I hope we can move beyond keeping score by different subjective criteria but this will be difficult.  The SATs are still culturally biased to measure a students chances of success in college which still favor the "protestant elite." I thank the Jesuits for preparing me for university and taking the SATs.


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