In the News: Paul Ryan and a WASP-free White House

Governor Romney’s announcement of Paul Ryan as his Vice-Presidential running mate has been heralded by some conservatives as a triumph.  Ryan is known for his commitment to restricting abortion and defending traditional families.  He is also the GOP’s leading voice for budget-cutting, even to the point of earning some censure from Catholic leaders.   But the pick has been seen as a play to conservatives, or, as we say here at ILYBYGTH, to voters from Fundamentalist America.

One unusual aspect of Romney’s decision is that it guarantees a WASP-free White House for at least four more years.  Of course, there’s nothing new about a WASP-free White House.  Barack Obama is African American Protestant, while Joe Biden is Catholic.  But no matter who wins in November, with LDS (Morman) Romney and staunchly Catholic Ryan, there will be no White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant in this race.

This matters for a couple of reasons.  First, it shows the way Fundamentalist America is changing.  Sixty years ago, asking conservatives to line up behind a non-Protestant candidate was political suicide.  In 1928 and nearly in 1960, it was tricky even for the Democrats to run a Catholic candidate.  These days, many different types of conservatives celebrate the Romney-Ryan ticket.  Ryan is seen as the “conservative” choice, not the “Catholic” choice.  Just as with the Protestant-free US Supreme Court, the fact that conservatives don’t seem to care about the non-WASPiness of this election tells us something about the changing nature of American culture.

It would be easy to be cynical about this.  We could attack Fundamentalist America for being hypocritical.  Here is how this argument would go: conservatives demand respect for “traditional values,” but they don’t ever clarify what those values are.  Since such things change within even one lifetime, the defense of “traditional values” is meaningless.  What last year’s traditionalist defends as a necessary part of American life, next year’s traditionalist insists was never part of traditionalist thinking.  In this case, traditionalist conservatives could be taken to task for shifting their “traditional values” without ever admitting it.  Sixty years ago, Catholics and LDS members were seen by many as outsiders, owing loyalty to a foreign potentate, in the case of Catholics.

A more sympathetic interpretation, however, is that this change from WASP to a more big-tent conservatism shows the healthy ways Fundamentalist America can change.  Fundamentalist America, in this line of thinking, is not the dinosaur it is made out to be.  It is a dynamic, thoughtful, fully contemporary way to be American.  As American culture broadens to welcome former outsiders such as Catholics and African Americans, so too does Fundamentalist America.

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  1. ChazIng

     /  August 13, 2012

    I believe that you are conflating WASP, conservative and fundamentalist. Many WASPs are not fundamentalist and many conservatives are evangelical rather than fundamentalist. Additionally, many evangelicals are not WASPs.

  2. Ed Brandt

     /  August 14, 2012

    Allow me to be **gasp** cynical enough for both of us.

    The summer following Barack Obama’s election, I found myself in the backwoods of Colorado and Nebraska, traveling with my parents to visit my dad’s roots. The people I met almost unanimously refused to speak the president’s name, instead calling him some variation on “The n—-er president” and that “c–n in the White House.” They knew “for a fact he is a Muslim,” and a terrorist, and I sincerely doubt the release of the long-form birth certificate changed anyone’s mind on his nationality. Incidentally, when they found out I was from Alaska, every one of them called Sarah Palin “a breath of fresh air.” Stitches. Many, many stitches were required in my tongue on that trip.

    What we are seeing right now with the Mitt and Paul Show is the Republicans’ faith in the fundamentalist electorate’s overwhelming desire to evict the black man from the White House. The Republicans believe–and I concur–that the fundamentalist wing of their party still believes Obama is a Muslim, still believes “white is right” and are willing to hold their noses and vote for two men who they believe would, under any other circumstance, represent two of America’s major cults.

    It’s a win-win for the Republican elite. They know they won’t lose too many percentage points on religion this time around, because at least the Catholics and the Mormons ain’t no Muslims. At the same time, they have two men who represent different extremes in the party: Mitt the billionaire and Paul the austerity king. The right will tolerate WASPlessness in the White House, as long as they get their way in the end. “Useful idiots” comes to mind.

    After the Ryan announcement, I watched all the Sunday morning news shows, and heard roughly a dozen times about the “bold choice” Romney made. As far as I can see, he made the safest choice in the history of American politics.

    • Ed Brandt

       /  August 14, 2012

      And before someone comes unhinged and gives me grief about “not all fundamentalists” and “not every Republican” and “I don’t think like that and I’m a fundamentalist,” fine. I never said “all.” I will go out on a limb and say “vast majority.” I congratulate anyone who is the exception that proves the rule.

      Besides, a lot of what I said above applies on the left. Rahm Emanuel once called liberals “retarded,” then apologized to the Shrivers (Special Olympics). I’m still waiting my apology as a liberal.

      • @Ed, But even if we follow your line of thinking, wouldn’t those racist conservatives want the whitest possible Presidential ticket? One that appealed to lingering WASPishness? That would make the contrast even starker betweent their ticket and the Democratic one, I would think.

        @ ChazIng, You’re right, of course. I did not mean to imply that all conservatives were WASPs, or that “evangelical” was the same as “fundamentalist.” What I was trying to say was that from a historical perspective, the conservative embrace of a WASP-free Presidential ticket is remarkable. Even more remarkable, as with a WASP-free SCOTUS, is that Protestantism does not even seem to be a major issue among most conservatives. As Ed implied, the WASP-y roots of conservatism run deep. But since at least the 1950s, with Catholic conservatives such as William F. Buckley and Phyllis Schlafly standing firmly together with Protestant conservatives, the WASP-y nature of American conservatism seems to have drained away without a whimper. That does not mean that all WASPs are conservatives, nor that all evangelicals are WASPs, or anything like that. But the nostalgic image of America’s past embraced by many conservatives has long favored very WASP-y images: Puritans bravely forging a new theocracy in New England; Presbyterians planting log churches all through the Cumberland Gap; and so on.

  3. ChazIng

     /  August 14, 2012

    @ Ed, How did you know these were fundies and not just simply racists? Some nitpicking though: Romney and Paul may care for the evangelical vote not necessarily for the fundamentalist vote. Also Obama is African AND European even if he identifies as African.
    @ Dr. Laats, Agreed. however, your audience is going to more of the emotional type so perhaps they may see stereotypes unless everything is explicit. Especially with fundamentalism, many atheists don’t even get it when it is explicitly stated (e.g. Scaramanga’s site).

    • Andrew Hartman at the US Intellectual History blog just posted some thoughts on this issue. In short, Hartman argues, “It’s the culture wars, stupid.” As Ed sort-of argued, Hartman thinks that conservative evangelicals’ dislike of progressivism allows them to hold their noses and vote for non-WASPs, as long as those non-WASPs uphold “traditional values.” Worth reading in its entirety.

    • Ed Brandt

       /  August 14, 2012

      @Adam: My point exactly. I don’t really think it’s possible that there could possibly be a whiter shade of presidential ticket than Romney/Ryan. Ryan was largely chosen for his lily-white complexion, methinks. Remember, there was a lot of chatter surrounding Marco Rubio and Condeleeza Rice for the ticket. They can live with the religions being non-fundamentalist, as long as long as the color contrast is clear. Some of the people I’m talking about would come right out and tell you it’s about race, others would resort to dog-whistles.

      At the same time that these backwoods (the population of my dad’s hometown was 444 when we visited) “backbone of America” types were calling Obama a Muslim, they were also saying, and I quote, “He’s controlled by that whacky n—-er Reverend Wright.” Ummm, okay, which is it? Is he Muslim, or is he a Protestant (Trinity)? Seems they think he can either, depending on convenience. Ironic that Obama at least brings the “P” in the WASP to the White House, and the “WAS” part on his mother’s side. One could argue he should actually be the WASPy choice.

      (Apropos of nothing, I actually believe Obama is not particularly religious in real life, but the perception that Christians are more moral than the rest of us keeps him and other politicians from outing themselves.)

      @Chazing: Well, they were a bit of both, weren’t they? A large number of the people I refer to were actually family, so I have it on very good authority they were fundies. I assure you, there were a lot of crosses and talks of church socials and people praying for my soul on that trip. We said grace before we ate Kentucky Fried Chicken at a reunion (which, now that I think about it, might not be a bad idea). I mean, nobody was actually burning crosses, but I doubt too many of the people I met would run for a bucket of water, either.

  4. ChazIng

     /  August 14, 2012

    @ Ed, your family may be a strange form of fundy if they use crosses, the fundies I know are strict non-iconoclasts. Additionally, even if you met a lot of racist people who claim to be fundies, you would have to show that they are not breaking theological rules about race and that racism is actually the norm for fundies. I don’t think you can do so, especially only with anecdotal evidence.

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