The New York Times headline was straightforward: “Study Finds That Percentage of Protestant Americans Is Declining.” We knew this was coming; trend lines have been moving in that direction for years. As Laurie Goodstein wrote in that NYT piece about the Pew survey, “For the first time since researchers began tracking the religious identity of Americans, fewer than half said they were Protestants, a steep decline from 40 years ago when Protestant churches claimed the loyalty of more than two-thirds of the population.”
There are two points worth noting in this news. One is how the numbers confirm the end of what the late Washington columnist and Georgetown fixture Joseph Alsop called “the Wasp ascendancy,” the era in which white Anglo-Saxon Protestants held so much of America’s political and economic power in their hands.
This year, the two national tickets doing battle for the presidency and vice-presidency of the U.S. are made up of an African American, a Mormon and two Roman Catholics — and, wonderfully, most people don’t seem to care much about tribal distinctions that for so long divided us. The arguments are about fixing the economy, not professions of faith. And that’s as it should be.
The Roosevelt and Bush families are usually seen as exemplars of the Wasp category, but Carter, Reagan and Clinton were also Wasps, narrowly defined. What people tend to mean when they use the term is a white guy who comes from privilege and is not unaccustomed to the use of summer as a verb. It seems fairly safe to say that a figure from that world would have quite a fight on his hands to win a national election today. That’s one reason George W. Bush emphasized his evangelical Texas creed. His father may prove to have been the last classically Wasp President we’ll have. Nothing’s impossible, of course, but the prevailing demographic and cultural climate is hardly conducive to a revival of Waspdom.
There is much to celebrate about the America of 2012 and beyond. While there remain enormous levels of inequality to be addressed and remedied, more and more American institutions — schools, universities, workplaces, the Supreme Court of late and now the presidential tickets — have come to reflect the country’s changing demographics. In May 2010, when John Paul Stevens announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, my friend Evan Thomas wrote a piece in Newsweek titled “Twilight of the WASPs,” noting that the new court would be made up entirely of Justices from Roman Catholic and Jewish traditions. “WASPs have been losing their dominant hold on positions of power since at least the 1960s,” Thomas wrote. “Yet aside from some lamenting of lost manners, no one seems to miss the old days very much, not even the WASPs, who have more or less tried to be chin-up. The 1960s doomed the idea that one ethnic group should or could hang on to the reins of private or public power. Diversity and equality of opportunity became the watchwords.”
There is a second revealing number in the Pew poll, one that may help explain the apparent lack of interest in the ethnic details that once dominated American politics. According to Pew, 1 in 5 Americans say they have no religious affiliation, a proportion that has been growing over the past five years.
This is complicated terrain. According to the Times, “The Pew report found that even among Americans who claimed no religion, few qualified as purely secular. Two-thirds say they still believe in God, and one-fifth say they pray every day. Only 12 percent of the religiously unaffiliated group said they were atheists and 17 percent agnostic.”
This means that a large and growing percentage of the country, particularly among the young, is viewing politics and culture through a lens that is profoundly different even from the lens of a generation or two ago. Formal churches play less of a role for this group, though service is important; it seems there is a rising segment of the population that eschews traditional institutions — a fact that makes that rising segment of the population free agents in matters of faith, politics and culture, which means candidates who successfully seek the presidency and govern in this new world will have to master an even more fluid country.
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