Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, June 28, 2010

Protestant Christianity and the decline of the American WASP

Today's New York Times has an op-ed piece that already has people talking. Written by Noel Feldman, a law professor at Harvard, it's called "The Triumphant Decline of the WASP," occasioned by the imminent disappearance of the last white Protestant from the Supreme Court. Feldman, a Jew, celebrates the values of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism with words like these:

"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."

As a proud member of the rapidly disappearing "elite" of old Virginia, I find these words (and the rest of the article) both stirring and truthful. There's something missing, however. Feldman credits two factors in the development of American democracy: 1) "the playing fields of Eton" (that's my quotation, not his) for instilling a sense of fair play; and 2) the Protestant, presumably Puritan/Presbyterian reverence for education. He gives Princeton University as a stellar example of the shift from its identity as an all-male Protestant redoubt to a singularly divers faculty and student body.

Very true, no doubt. But what's missing? Protestantism itself is missing. If it occurs to Prof. Feldman that the Reformation itself had something to do with democracy, abolition, women's suffrage, free markets, freedom of speech, the civil rights movement, separation of church and state, etc etc etc, he does not say so. I believe that this is demonstrably the case, however, and Protestant leaders should not fail to celebrate this and hold us to our own biblical grounding.

I will be watching the Letters to the Editor for the next few days to see if anyone takes up the challenge. (I have written at least a dozen letters to the Times myself and none have ever been published, so I am tired of trying.)

Here is the link to the Feldman piece:

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Gulf oil "spill" and corporate responsibility

"Spill"? how about "uncontrolled hemorrhage"?

In trying to come to terms with the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, I have found only one article that really stands out. Don't let any prejudice against The New York Times keep you from reading this one. Joe Nocera, who writes and talks about business for the Times as well as NPR, has dug up some information about past leaks which cast a whole new light on BP's conduct.

Human lives or business profits? How do we balance the two? Many people in South Louisiana are scared to death of a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling because so many people's livelihoods are dependent on it. Pastors and preachers are not in a position to give expert opinions on this matter, but the ongoing dilemma of profits vs. safe and humane working conditions extends from the East Coast to the West, North to South as we ponder migrant workers, underpaid domestic help, illegal immigrants, and a hundred other varieties of exploited workers. I always think of a woman I read about several years ago who went to Mass every morning but did not care about the genuine grievances of the workers on her farm.

It is not stupid or naive to raise questions about corporate culture. It is quite possible to instill respect for workers on the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder when the top leaders insist on it. See for instance Max de Pree, devout Christian, former chairman of Herman Miller, and his books Leadership Is an Art and Leadership Jazz. My husband heard Trammell Crow, the Texas real estate tycoon, speak about this. Crow said that in order to be truly successful as the head of a business, you had to have everybody in the company rooting for you, not just the top people that you see every day. You have to have the workers in the mail room and the janitors and the men on the oil rig rooting for you--not worrying that their health and even their lives are in danger because of your neglect. This is just as true of a parish church as it is of a huge corporation. If the secretary and the sexton feel exploited and mistreated, the whole enterprise is in doubt.

I doubt if any preachers will make the sins of BP the centerpiece of a sermon. I wouldn't do so myself. But what a trenchant sermon illustration of the issues that Christians must be concerned about!

Here's the link to the Joe Nocera article: