Quel chemin parcouru depuis la création de ce pays, entièrement de la main de protestants. Voici encore trente ans, cette évolution aurait été tout simplement impensable.
Ne les plaignons pas. Ils ont creusé leur propre tombe.
Bon reportage de Robert Frank dans les colonnes du Wall Street Journal.
That Bright, Dying Star, the American WASP
On a recent morning at the Links Club, New York's wood-paneled preserve of the old banking elite, a small crowd of white-haired members gathered for breakfast.
The talk around the tables, over poached eggs and toast, was of Europe and sovereign-debt markets. Some were quietly negotiating deals. The crowd was mostly older, though it included a smattering of 40-something and 50-something members.
While undeniably upper-crust, the scene, which included a Latin American and an Asian, was a far cry from the Links Club of 20 years ago, when doing business was forbidden and the strictly homogenous crowd of Protestant blue-bloods spent their mornings comparing golf scores and vacation homes.
"It's changed with the times," said one former member. "That's both our gain and our loss."
In the long downward spiral of what used to be known as America's Protestant Establishment, there have been several momentous milestones: Harvard's opening up its admissions policies after World War II. Corporate America's rush in the 1980s to bring more diversity to the corner office. Barack Obama's inauguration as the first African-American president.
History may reveal another milestone—Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court. If she is confirmed, the nation's nine most powerful judges will all be Catholic or Jewish, leaving the court without a Protestant member for the first time.
Of the 111 Supreme Court Justices who have served, 35 have been Episcopalians, making them the largest religious group on the court, according to court historians. The court's first non-Protestant was Catholic Justice Roger Taney, appointed by President Andrew Jackson in 1836.
Whether the court's religious makeup even matters in today's legal world has become a subject of hot debate. Yet by ushering in a Protestant-free court, Ms. Kagan is helping to sweep away some of the last vestiges of a group that ruled American politics, wealth and culture for much of the nation's history.
"The fact that we're going to zero Protestants in the court may not be as significant as the fact that her appointment perfectly reflects the decline of the Establishment, or the WASP Establishment, in America," said David Campbell, associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.
Seen from the distance of time, the changes are stunning. In the 1960s, the vast majority of corporate managers were Protestant, according to E. Digby Baltzell's famous 1964 tome, "The Protestant Establishment."
The percentage of Protestants in Congress has dropped to 55% from 74% in 1961, according to Pew Forum. The corner offices of the top banks, once ruled by Rockefellers and Bakers, now include an Indian-American and the grandson of a Greek immigrant.
In old-money enclaves like Palm Beach, Fla., Nantucket, Mass., and Greenwich, Conn., WASPs are being priced out of their waterfront estates and displaced on their nonprofit boards by Jewish, Catholic and other non-Protestant entrepreneurs.
A survey by Pew Research found only 21% of mainline U.S. Protestants had income of $100,000 or more, compared with 46% of Jews and 42% of Hindus.
Until the early 1980s, when a flood of new wealth began to democratize the American elite, the path to power and status in America was straight and narrow. It usually began with old-line families in the lush estates of Greenwich, Boston, New York or Philadelphia and wound its way through New England boarding schools, on to Harvard or Yale and finally to the white-shoe law firms or banks of the Northeast or the corridors of power in Washington.
John J. McCloy—the Philadelphia-born, Harvard-educated lawyer and banker who served as assistant secretary of War during World War II and on several corporate boards, including Chase Manhattan Bank's—became known as "the Chairman of the Establishment."
His son, John J. McCloy II, a Connecticut-based venture capitalist, says Ms. Kagan's nomination is a sign of the nation's commendable meritocracy, but also a "dangerous departure" from Establishment mores, since Ms. Kagan, while a brilliant scholar, has no experience as a judge.
"I think we're losing something fundamental with the Establishment," he said. "The Establishment was really about people who became leaders because they were confident and highly competent in their areas."
The Protestant downfall can be attributed many things: the deregulation of markets, globalization, the rise of technology, the primacy of education and skills over family connections.
Yet many also point to the shifting dynamics of the faith itself, with mainline Protestantism giving way to the more fire-and-brimstone brands of Evangelicals in recent decades. The Episcopal Church, usually seen as the church of the Establishment, has seen some of the most pronounced declines in recent years.
Rev. Mark S. Sisk, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, said the polarized landscape of religion today hasn't favored more moderate faiths like Episcopals.
"When it comes to elective office, I can't think of anyplace in the country where being a middle-of-the-road Episcopalian would be a great plus," he said.
He added, however, that tracking the ups and downs of socioreligious groups like WASPs was no longer relevant.
"That kind of calibration of 'what members of my team are on the front lines' seems to me to be an antique kind of thing to do," he said.
Meantime, WASP culture has been left to live out its days as a fashion statement, on the shelves of Ralph Lauren stores, or as a social badge at defiantly old-world clubs like the Knickerbocker Club in New York or the Bath and Tennis Club in Palm Beach.
In "The Protestant Establishment," Mr. Baltzell pointed to the prejudice and insularity of the elite as the eventual causes of its decline. "A crisis has developed in modern America largely because of the White-Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment's unwillingness, or inability, to share and improve its upper-class traditions by continuously absorbing talented and distinguished members of minority groups into its privileged ranks."
Jamie Johnson, the documentary filmmaker and heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, said he believed the destructive effects of wealth over multiple generations were also a factor.
"The generations of affluence bred a certain kind of casual, passive approach to life and wealth building," he said. "Lots of people just got lazy."
Write to Robert Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org
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