You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

No longer a white Protestant nation

The Baltimore Sun

There is a template through which some people view the United States: that it is fundamentally a white Protestant nation.

I know that template because I was taught it as a child. In school every morning, until the Supreme Court intervened, after the Pledge of Allegiance we recited the Lord’s Prayer, in the Protestant version.

Our presidents, until 1961, had all been white nominally Protestant men, and so had been our senators and Supreme Court justices, in the main.

While the country had been suspicious of all those Irish and Italian Roman Catholic immigrants in the nineteenth century, by the middle of the twentieth century they had been assimilated as honorary Protestants. Even some Jews were allowed in; in my sophomore year in high school I had to do an English class presentation on a Reader’s Digest article about Bernard Baruch.

We knew that there used to be slaves, though the Constitution did not think that they were quite people, and we did see black people around, but nearly everyone but Jack Benny’s Rochester and Louis Armstrong on the television was white.

This was the norm. This is what America was.

And now that template is cracking, because white people are headed for minority status as the black, Latino, and Asian populations grow. The prospect of a multicultural America cannot mesh with the white Protestant template, and this has many white people atremble with cultural insecurity.

This explains why the election of Barack Obama, who exemplified a multicultural society, led to outrageous and idiotic fantasies: He was not a native-born American citizen; he was a Muslim; he was a sleeper-cell agent planted to destroy America. When you feel threatened, you project all manner of ugly things.

You also give way to other fantasies, among them a return to a lost past. There are people my age who are nostalgic for the 1950s, when blacks were in the back of the bus, women in the kitchen, and gays in the closet. There are people born during Ronald Reagan’s administration and later who nourish a synthetic nostalgia for this imagined time. I was there in the 1950s, and I have no interest in returning to it.

You can see desperate attempts to fend off the inevitable: calls to expel immigrants and build a wall to keep others out; clumsy legislative measures to gerrymander and restrict black people’s voting, so reminiscent of Jim Crow, if not of apartheid; fantasies of constructing a white entho-state; open misogyny and homophobia casually displayed.

It’s not going to work, at least not over the long term. “White Protestant America” was always a construct, a cultural fiction, and maintaining it has become untenable. It can only be sustained, temporarily, by measures that even many white Protestants find objectionable.

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