Majority Report

In your mind’s eye, picture American 500 years ago. What do you see? Even those of us who’ve studied history have trouble envisioning the past with so different a set of parameters. At least if we’re honest with ourselves. 1516. The Salem Witch trials are almost two centuries in the future. The landscape is occupied by Native Americans. There are some European settlements. Protestantism is something new. In fact we’ll need to wait another year for Martin Luther to drag out his hammer and nails, theses in hand. The America we see then, not called “America,” let alone “United States,” is a diverse—some might say “wild”—world of decidedly non-European sensibilities. Global warming wasn’t an issue, and King James hadn’t even been born yet, let alone been commissioning the most famous Bible in English ever. So why am I asking you to look back?

luther_at_erfurt_-_justification_by_faith

This presidential campaign has largely been a waspish one. During the turmoil, books have been published proclaiming the end of “white, Christian America.” In an interview on PBS one of the authors of such a book, Robert Jones, talks about how America has changed. He notes that what he really means is that white Protestants are, statistically speaking, no longer the majority. Just a few centuries ago that was also the case. Think about Protestants a minute. They’re the ones who invented the Bible as we know it. Oh, the book had been around, in some form or other, for a couple of millennia (well, a millennium and a half, back then). Other than scholars in need of more fresh air, few spent much time with it. The church told Europeans what God demanded and the majority of people just got on with their daily lives not worrying about what some book they couldn’t even read might say. How things have changed!

We worry about the end of our majority. I like to look back and see that this world we’ve built is one based largely on a book that was mainly the invention of those who had some discussion points with the church. Not quite a hundred of them, even. They were largely Anglo-Saxons. If they knew about “the New World” their knowledge was hazy and imprecise. From that perspective it doesn’t seem like much is being lost in the changing religious demographics of this country. Back in the old world, if one wished to feel nostalgic for such things, they would’ve taken their complaints and found the nearest church door. Now we nominate candidates who think this country was ours in the first place, without ever even reading the Bible used to support that myth. What a difference a few centuries can make.

3 responses to “Majority Report

  1. Have WASPs ever been the majority in North America?

    The Spanish Empire and then Mexico used to claim most of the present US territory. The French Empire at one point claimed much of it as well. Of course, Native Americans once claimed it as well and they used to exist in large numbers.

    During the colonial era, many areas of North America were majority non-WASP: New Orleans, Florida, the Carolinas, Pennsylvania, etc (probably places like New Jersey as well). The percentage of non-WASPs increased in all areas of the US over the 19th and into the 20th century.

    I’m sure that for most of US history the majority of US citizens have been some combination of non-white, non-Anglo-Saxon, and non-Protestant. The single largest ancestral group in this country is German and many Germans were Catholics and Anabaptists.

    Interestingly, Benjamin Franklin complained about the Palatine German majority of Pennsylvania, partly because of their dark-skin and also because of their lack of assimilation to WASP culture. They were questionable not just in being Americans but in being white.

    WASPs have always been the majority of the ruling elite. But that is a different issue. That points to the real fear that some WASPs have. It isn’t the loss of a majority status that they never had. Rather, it’s the loss of power, dominance, and social position.

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  2. Pingback: The Old WASP Dream Falters | Marmalade

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