Right Rite, Right or Wrong.

August 18, 2014

Had I not been born a Jew, I would have made a good Roman Catholic. Dwight Eisenhower said of Dartmouth College “this is what a college should look like.” This is true of the Vatican’s rite: it’s what a religion should look like.

Granted, a millennium and more of entrenched dogma that seemed like a good idea when first promulgated but subsequently staggered under its own contradictory weight is heavy baggage – but baggage common to most faiths. The Holy See has an excess of it because it has been more aggressive in recording the strictures of its faith than others: no fewer than 37 universities, including the Pontifical colleges in Vatican City, offer degrees in canon law, that body of doctrine in comparison to which the Internal Revenue Code looks like See Spot Run. The Hindu faith is older than the Roman one, but the Indian swamis never bureaucratized their beliefs and so, thousands of years later, are not caught in their contradictions.

Still, the ins and outs of any particular faith are irrelevant for our purposes, assuming they all allow for belief in a higher power and propound the idea of treating others as we would ourselves. With those basics in place, the details are unimportant because it is highly unlikely that any specific religion knows much of anything about God. This strips importance from the details of belief; what harm or benefit is there in preferring one myth to another? A man once asked Rabbi Hillel to teach him the Torah while standing on one foot. The Rabbi stood on one foot and told him: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The rest is just details.”

Absent the details (like whether God really spoke to Moses from a burning bush, or guided the magi via galactic GPS), and assuming the fungibility of a belief in God and a moral commandment to treat others as we would ourselves, the difference in religions boils down to the appearance of ritual. So what value is there in organized religion, Catholic or otherwise (on a personal level – setting aside charitable works)? This: comfort and guidance. It gives voice to faith, and provides for the expression in ancient, beautiful forms of thoughts and hopes which would otherwise be private. In public acts of faith there is comfort: comfort in tradition, comfort in community, comfort in ritual, comfort in a public affirmation of personal belief. This is worthwhile, and the Roman religion excels at these: it has beautiful, elegant trappings. Its rituals are nearly unequalled for splendor and ceremony, which elevate their moral content.

Perhaps the Jews understand this appeal especially well. In 1994, the Dalai Lama visited Israel and asked a rabbi: “What it is that unites Jewish people the world over — what the kernel of the doctrine is that unites all Jews?” The rabbi told him: “When it comes to doctrine, there is hardly any uniformity. What unites all faithful Jews are the rituals. Come Friday, all Jewish homes, from Siberia to Ethiopia, hold Sabbath in the same manner. We have been doing this for thousands of years, since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.”

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In Decline, Graciously

July 2, 2010

Via The New York Times:

Satisfaction with our national progress should not make us forget its authors: the very Protestant elite that founded and long dominated our nation’s institutions of higher education and government, including the Supreme Court.

Unlike almost every other dominant ethnic, racial or religious group in world history, white Protestants have ceded their socioeconomic power by hewing voluntarily to the values of merit and inclusion, values now shared broadly by Americans of different backgrounds. The decline of the Protestant elite is actually its greatest triumph.

Like any ethno-racial or religious group, the population of white Protestants is internally diverse. It would be foolish to conflate the descendants of New England smallholders with the offspring of Scandinavian sod farmers in the Middle West, just as it would be a mistake to confuse the Milanese with the Sicilians, or the children of Havana doctors with the grandchildren of dirt farmers from Chiapas, Mexico.

So, when discussing the white elite that exercised such disproportionate power in American history, we are talking about a subgroup, mostly of English or Scots-Irish origin, whose ancestors came to this land in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their forebears fought the American Revolution and wrote the Constitution, embedding in it a distinctive set of beliefs of Protestant origin, including inalienable rights and the separation of church and state.

It is not as though white Protestants relinquished power quickly or without reservation. Catholic immigrants, whether from Ireland or Southern Europe, faced a century of organized discrimination and were regularly denounced as slavish devotees of the pope unsuited to democratic participation.

And, although anti-Semitism in America never had anything like the purchase it had in Europe, it was a persistent barrier. Protestants like Abbott Lawrence Lowell, a great president of Harvard in the early 20th century, tried to impose formal quotas to limit Jewish admissions to the university. The Protestant governing elite must also bear its own share of responsibility for slavery and racial discrimination.

Yet, after the ideals of meritocratic inclusion gained a foothold, progress was remarkably steady and smooth. Take Princeton University, a longtime bastion of the Southern Protestant elite in particular. The Princeton of F. Scott Fitzgerald was segregated and exclusive. When Hemingway described Robert Cohn in the opening of “The Sun Also Rises” as a Jew who had been “the middleweight boxing champion of Princeton,” he was using shorthand for a character at once isolated, insecure and pugnacious. As late as 1958, the year of the “dirty bicker” in which Jews were conspicuously excluded from its eating clubs, Princeton could fairly have been seen as a redoubt of all-male Protestant privilege.

In the 1960s, however, Princeton made a conscious decision to change, eventually opening its admissions to urban ethnic minorities and women. That decision has now borne fruit. Astonishingly, the last three Supreme Court nominees — Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — are Princeton graduates, from the Classes of 1972, ’76, and ’81, respectively. The appointments of these three justices to replace Protestant predecessors turned the demographic balance of the court.

Why did the Protestant elite open its institutions to all comers? The answer can be traced in large part to the anti-aristocratic ideals of the Constitution, which banned titles of nobility and thus encouraged success based on merit. For many years, the Protestant elite was itself open to rising white Protestants not from old-family backgrounds.

Money certainly granted entrée into governing circles, but education was probably more important to the way the Protestant elite defined itself, which is why the opening of the great American universities has had such an epochal effect in changing the demographics of American elites. Another key source was the ideal of fair play, imported from the ideology of the English public schools, but practiced far more widely in the United States than in the class-ridden mother country.

Together, these social beliefs in equality undercut the impulse toward exclusive privilege that every successful group indulges on occasion. A handful of exceptions for admission to societies, clubs and colleges — trivial in and of themselves — helped break down barriers more broadly. This was not just a case of an elite looking outside itself for rejuvenation: the inclusiveness of the last 50 years has been the product of sincerely held ideals put into action.

Interestingly, this era of inclusion was accompanied by a corresponding diffusion of the distinctive fashion (or rather anti-fashion) of the Protestant elite class. The style now generically called “prep,” originally known as “Ivy League,” was long purveyed by Jewish and immigrant haberdashers (the “J.” in the New Haven store J. Press stands for Jacobi) and then taken global by Ralph Lauren, né Lifshitz. But until the Protestant-dominated Ivy League began to open up, the wearers of the style were restricted to that elite subculture.

The spread of Ivy League style is therefore not a frivolous matter. Today the wearing of the tweed is not anachronism or assimilation, but a mark of respect for the distinctive ethnic group that opened its doors to all — an accomplishment that must be remembered, acknowledged and emulated.


WASPs Take Flight

May 25, 2010

Assuming Elena Kagan, President Obama’s anointed successor to Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens (himself an illustrious knight of the Protestant realm), is confirmed to the Court, she will become part of the first Supreme Court entirely devoid of WASPs.

Of the 111 (mainly) men and (less often) women who have served as Justices on the high court, nearly a full third have been white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants… what sociologist E. Digby Baltzell identified in 1964 as the American ruling class. A good amount of Catholics have cropped up lately, notably Justice Antonin Scalia, and the Jews have enjoyed a foothold for a while, starting with Louis Brandeis. (Kagan herself is Jewish: a member of the group most often cited by sociologists like Baltzell as having supplanted the Protestants in wielding influence disproportionate to their numbers.)

Of course, the North American WASP has been a species long declining, thanks in part to what researchers call “generational degeneration.” Centuries ago, a strong Protestant work ethic and Yankee ingenuity made for a lot of fortunes earned; entitled heirs made for a lot of waste. Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, explains: “The generations of affluence bred a certain kind of casual, passive approach to life and wealth building. Lots of people just got lazy.” Southern money might put it differently: fat dogs don’t hunt.

So old-line money and its (sometimes honorable, sometimes insular) values are being swept away, and in their place we expect a shiny new meritocracy, exemplary to the world. It’s not about who you know, but what you can do! Our leaders, including Justices of the Supreme Court, will become a more representative lot, drawn from common stock and full of common virtue. Of course, Ms. Kagan’s proponents hold, there’s no stock more common and popularly representative than Upper West Side Jewish girls with Ivy League degrees.

So we seem in the process of trading one aristocracy for another, and all that really changes is the royal religion. And, given Americans’ generally lax proclivities toward faith, this probably isn’t a terribly important shift. What will be more telling is whether or not the old WASP ideals of grace, charm, style, economy, family, and tradition will stay on. As the late Louis Auchincloss, white-shoe attorney and author, noted: “The tragedy of American civilization is that it has swept away WASP morality and put nothing in its place.”  

Victims of regime change.