Country Clubs, the Ivy League, and the Episcopal Church: The Cultural Constellation of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants in
Introduction and a Brief History of WASP Culture
White Anglo-Saxon Protestants were the first Americans. Leaving
The cultural manifestations of WASP values as descended from its British heritage took on unique and colorful forms, as well as some problematic and antiquated notions about family life, class, and status. As Robert Locke put it in Frontpage Magazine:
The WASP establishment was the world of the Ivy League, Fifth Avenue, gentlemen’s clubs, the Social Register, elite country clubs, top New York law firms and investment banks, Boston Brahmins, Main Line Philadelphia, the upper management of great corporations like the Pennsylvania Railroad, certain parts of the military, the OSS and its successor the CIA, the Episcopal Church, New England boarding schools, and the old diplomatic corps. It ruled
The same values, that by the late twentieth century had become less relevant, were the contemporary expression of the same values which had integrally shaped the
When once the WASP represented the vast majority of those who inhabited Colonial America, he now represents, in number, another of myriad minority groups. This comparative numeric decline has meant little, however, socially until very recently because WASP cultural has been so transmittable- almost anyone can be a WASP. The emphasis on individual identity, consciousness, conscientiousness, productivity, and achievement meant a person willing to assimilate their values could be a WASP without being White, Anglo-Saxon, or Protestant. The WASP cultural dominance has long outlasted their raw population dominance in part because of the appeal of these values. These are the same values which became exported and romanticized as the “American Dream.” WASPs have tended to deemphasize the importance of extended family, as compared to most cultures around the world, while at the same time emphasizing bonds formed through work and morality.
In the end, however, the transmission of WASP culture to non-WASPs gradually led to diffusion and with that the decline of the WASP. WASP values have, over the last 35 years, become more and more subordinate as other minority groups with different value sets gain social, economic, and political power. There has long been an inevitability to this phenomenon, when as early as 1859 Abraham Lincoln believed WASPs to make up less than half the population, whereas only 75 years earlier they made up two-thirds of the population, and nearly all of the remaining third was protestant (Brookhiser, 1993). In 1991, only 23% of American children had two parents of English descent, and 71% of children had one parent of English descent (Waldrop, 1991)
Immigration and open borders had always been part of the American- and thus WASP- economic plan. New immigrant groups significantly helped to propel the rapidly growing
Now, it seems the osmosis has become more bidirectional than ever. The once dominant presence of WASP culture has become part of a vast American landscape where its voice is now only one of many, no louder than many others, when once it was the only voice. The form of the dialogue, now, throughout the American political landscape may be and always will be the echo, the cosmic radiation, of the initial American Big Bang, but the content is rapidly metamorphosing and evolving as other subcultures gain influence.
In writing this paper, it became clear that there is a significant dearth of research on WASPs and their culture. Perhaps this is because of two reasons. One is that it is WASP culture itself which provides the taken-for-granted backdrop of psychological, sociological, and cultural research. Secondly, WASPs and other groups do not seem to be all that interested in examining WASPs, partly because the culture provides such an embedded context for all of the research that is conducted. This paper will attempt to examine some of the current research about WASP culture in the
The Dominance of WASP Culture and Its Place in Modern
As discussed, WASP culture has formed the foundation for American culture, and the reverberations of the colonial and Constitutional ideals continue to provide the backdrop and form of the dialogue in contemporary
A strong case can be made for the continued ubiquity of WASPs. While less than a quarter of American children are of entirely WASP descent, well over half of the children whose faces we see in advertising are WASP faces (Waldrop, 1991). WASPs, at least in college classrooms, are much more likely to occupy the center of the classroom. Similarly, other non-WASP subgroups are more likely to sit somewhere around the periphery, with the more “marginal” groups sitting further out away from the center (Haber, 1982). The author of the research argues that the space occupied within a room containing various subgroups, will mirror “the space,” so to speak, that the groups occupy in society in general. This has been a common social trend throughout much of the world. Haber writes, “ …the gypsies of
The heightened status of WASPs has ramifications for education and health. As compared to Asian American and African Americans, WASPs have been shown to maintain their cognitive acuity into old age significantly more so than Asian Americans and African Americans (Shadlen, M. F. Larson, E. B., Gibbons, L. E., Rice, M. M., McCormick, W. C., Bowen, J., McCurry, S. M., Graves, A, B., 2001.). The major reason for this it seems is the quality of the educational background. While most WASPs typically complete higher education, it is significantly less common in the African American population. In the geriatric population, the mean number of years of education for WASPs is 12.5 as compared to only 9.3 for African Americans. Further, it seems that education throughout the early part of a person’s life affects their health later in life. “Low educational attainment is a known risk for both Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and cerebrovascular disease,” write Shadlen, et al. and as such African Americans are three times as likely to develop AD as WASPs. In examining the cognitive functioning of African American and WASP Alzheimer’s patients using the Mini-Mental State Examination, performance differences were erased when level of educational attainment was controlled for. Thus the level of cognitive deterioration that accompanies AD can be parsed out from a person’s educational background, which in turn is highly associated with a socioeconomic system which is highly skewed in the direction of WASPs and away from African Americans. Education is a strong predictor of socioeconomic status, and, importantly, an even stronger predictor of stroke and heart disease than race (Winkleby, Jatulis, Frank, et al). Unfortunately, race is intimately tied to education via socioeconomics.
Other writers argue that the WASP hold on the upper echelons of American culture is waning. Politically, when once the Republican Party, usually the party of the wealthy, was almost entirely WASP, it is now more culturally mixed than ever. Economically, traditionally WASP institutions, like the Girard Trust and the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society, are now owned and operated by non-WASPs. Contrary to other research sited above (Haber, 1982), WASPs, it is agued, are the ones being marginalized and squeezed out politically by both parties. The Economist writes:
The Democrats created huge political machines, powered by immigrants from
Other authors have wondered where the “sting” of the WASP has gone, that going back a few decades “there were hints of a new elite, of non-status-seeking pursued with unimaginable vigor” (McGrath, 1998). This included a new set of values and measures of social achievement that did not include the elevation of property and hierarchy. The same institutions that the WASPs built are now leaving the WASPs behind to some extent by the Darwinian selectivity of heightened admissions standards. This has also translated to a different cultural constellation of politics. It was the Wilsonian politics of the early twentieth century Democratic Party (decades later ruled by the Kennedys) that highly valued the graduates of Ivy League schools (attended almost entirely by WASPs), and placed them in the highest positions in government. What occurred was a subtle shift in emphasis away from wealth, ownership, and a degree of nepotism, to intellectual power and academic achievement (It was also at this time that the U.S. became intelligence-testing-obsessed.). The Economist writes: Now university humanities departments are dominated by multiculturalists who treasure every culture except the Anglo. Now that admissions into the Ivy League and other top schools is up for grabs in a way that it was not before, as well as influenced by Affirmative Action, the notion that politics should be dictated by those who achieve the most academically takes on a multiracial twist. And the more new subcultures, like Asians and Latinos, become embedded and invested in American policy, the more they will parlay academic achievement into political influence (McGrath, 1998).
Cultural Values and Religion: The “Protestant” in WASP
The typical view of the role religion has played in shaping the cultural values of the WASP is that of hard work (“good works”), self-effacement, a reverence for the past (McGrath, 1998), and a strict internal moral compass, as Brookhiser writes, “The WASP could feel guilty all by himself,” (1991). And thus the conglomeration of these religiously derived values becomes an emphasis on the individual. It was up to the individual to work hard, to know right form wrong, and to figure out his own solutions to his own problems.
Some of the most powerful results of the WASPs’ protestant values are the notions of hard work and wealth. Max Weber, in his famous work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, discusses at length the relationship between the evolution of capitalism and the protestant, and in particular Calvinist, work ethic. “In order that a manner of life well adapted to the peculiarities of capitalism,” Weber writes, “could come to dominate others, it had to originate somewhere, and not in isolated individuals alone, but as a way of life common to the whole groups of man.” It was the shared Puritanical beliefs system among WASPs that uniquely combined secularism with hard work, as well as the accumulation of wealth with feelings of guilt about spending it. This led to a massive trend of investment, which in turn created a booming
In the current state of the American multi-cultural landscape, it is worthwhile to compare the attitudes of WASPs and the newest immigrant wave, Latinos, about wealth and money. It has been argued that there is a large difference typically between these two groups and that the difference primarily lies within different beliefs systems regarding family and individualism, that is individual boundaries (Falicov, 2001). There is much less personal separation among the members of a family in most Latin American cultures. What might be considered unhealthy enmeshment in a WASP family is normal for a Latino family. And what might be a painfully fractured family picture in a Latino culture is healthy and normal in WASP culture (Saetermoe, Beneli & Busch, 1999). Indeed, in many Latin American cultures, the word “individual” in Spanish, “individuo,” has strong negative connotations about one being an outsider or a rebel (Christian, 2006, personal communication). Falicov concludes:
Basic ideologies about collectivism and individualism, balance of work and leisure, traditional and egalitarian marital relationships, and religious beliefs that construct life circumstances as being more or less under individual control shape and inform diverse attitudes and uses of money among Latinos and Anglo-Americans.
In Latin culture, money is pooled and shared among the members of a family, businesses hire their relatives, and leisure time is spent almost entirely with the extended family. Money is used to bring family together- sometimes with mixed results, as combining family and business can create tension that spills over into both spheres. WASPs, on the other hand, use money to empower the individual. Money is not exchanged among family members with a high degree of fluidity, as that of Latino cultures. Business and family are often kept very separate, and leisure time is usually spent with immediate family and friends, often at the expense of close relationships with extended family (Saetermoe, Beneli & Busch, 1999).
While both cultures are typically patriarchal, WASP culture, in traditional pragmatic fashion, has increasingly promoted women in the workforce, and often it is the wife who is in charge of family finances and bill paying. In Latino communities, it is less often the case that the matriarch has such a prominent role in the financial doings of the family (Falicov, 2001).
WASP culture has garnered mixed reviews over the past decade- a unique phenomenon in these times of cultural sensitivity, when cultural relativism is a necessary way of life for the American. Are WASPs still in a descent or is there a recent resurgence? Clearly, in numbers, they are taking up less and less of the population pie. But this is of little import. WASP values have made an indelible mark in American history, the broadest marks of any culture. While new subcultures assimilate and make there own mark, American culture will continue to change. The context in which these changes will occur will be the context of entrenched, immobile American values, the same values out of which the American culture grew four hundred years ago. These are the values that are not just embodied by WASPs, as was the case then, but by all those who wish to participate and thrive in American society- flawed as it may be. It is difficult to image an
William Faulkner gave a lecture in 1954 entitled A Guest’s Impression of New England (included in the collection Lion in the Garden), and in it he describes an actual incident in New England wherein his car is about to run out of fuel without a gas station in sight, and up ahead is a small mountain. He asks a local for some direction. Before telling his audience what happened that afternoon in
“Excuse me,” said Faulkner to the local New Englander, “My car is running low on fuel, and I wonder if there is a gas station up ahead over that mountain?”
“Yup,” replied the New Englander. Faulkner began to drive away. Getting part way down the road, Faulkner stopped and backed up his car.
“Excuse me,” said Faulkner to the local, “Do I have enough gas to get over that mountain?”
“Nope,” said the New Englander.
Faulkner’s personal tale was not to disparage the New England-WASP rugged individualism, but to admire it. The value implied by the story is that of freedom- the unique brand of WASP freedom which underscores the substance of the American ideal of freedom. A man is allowed to do what he wants to do, unimpeded, as long as he is not encroaching upon the liberty of anyone else. There is no shame. His conduct is left up to his own internal sense of morality and responsibility. A man’s fate is wholly individual and in his own hands. Faulkner’s story illustrates how this broad abstract value, which has helped shape a nation, permeates all aspects of life, even the mundane- even running out of gas.
Brookhiser, R. (1991). The Way of the WASP.
In this book, Brookhiser argues that the foundation of American life, even today, is based on the values of WASPs as first embodied by the original settlers. At one time, each new immigrant wave assimilated WASP values, which happen to be conducive to assimilation. Recently, however, there has been an erosion of the implementation of WASP values even if they still provide form to the content of contemporary American values. This is a refreshing take on a topic that has gone largely ignored in reminding readers of the importance of WASP values for Americans.
Brookhiser, R. (1993, Fall). III cheers for the WASPs. Time Magazine, 142, 21, 78-79.
This article is a concise version of many of Brookhiser’s central points in The Way of the WASP. Again, he highlights the influence WASPs have had throughout American history. This brief article helps in getting oriented to Brookhiser’s broad argument.
Falicov, C. J. (2001). The cultural meanings of money: The case of Latinos and Anglo-
Americans. American Behavioral Scientist, 45 (2), 313-328.
Falicov shows data that points to cultural reasons why Anglo-Americans have a different concept of and orientation toward money and how it should be invested and spent. The major cultural differences revolve around attitudes about family and individuation. This article served as a good sample of how WASP values can contrast with those of many, if not most, other cultures.
Haber, G. M. (1982). Spatial relations between dominants and marginals. Social
Psychology Quarterly, 45 (4), 219-228.
Haber presents an argument supported by her data that WASP tend to occupy the center of most classrooms. This, she argues, is symbolic of the still central position within American culture. This article is highlights some of the more subtle, even unconscious, effects of the WASP position in the American landscape.
McGrath, C. (1998 November 15). The decline of WASP reserve. New York Times
Magazine, p. 67.
McGrath discusses what the character of the typical WASP used to be, how it has changed, and eventually how it had become challenged over recent decades. He concludes by wondering about the future of WASPs and the propagation of their values in the
Saetermoe, C. L., Beneli,
Anglo and Latino parents. Current Psychology, 18 (2), 171-184.
This group discusses the results of the respective cultural values of Anglos and Latino and how these values permeate notions about adulthood, and thus, the direction adulthood typically takes within these cultures. This article provides a concise summary of the important differences between Anglo-American and Latino cultures.
Shadlen, M. F. Larson, E. B., Gibbons, L. E., Rice, M. M., McCormick, W. C., Bowen,
J., McCurry, S. M., &
This article provides a concise synopsis of the socioeconomic connections between education and health, as well as their own original research regarding this area. Further, the article highlights the education disparities among some of the different subgroups in the
Waldrop, J. (1991). WASP children are waning. American Demographics, 13 (5), 21 (2).
This article extrapolates from raw census data about the WASP continued dominance in areas of American life despite their continued decline in population proportion. This article is valuable in highlighting the continued diffusion of pure WASP heredity despite the WASP children still being the prototypical American.
The WASP in the ointment: WASP establishment and 2000 republican convention.
(1993, July 15). The Economist, 356, pp. 34-35.
This article, written without an author being sited, discusses the changing
Weber, M. (2001). The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.
This treatise is that classic statement on the economic, political, and cultural ramifications of WASP values and how they have shape the
Winkleby, M. A., Jatulis D. E., Frank E. (1992). Socioeconomic status and health: How
education, income and occupation contribute to risk factors for cardiovascular disease. American Journal of Public Health, 82, 816-820.
This article provides medical research for the complex interaction between socioeconomic status and health ramifications and risks. WASP have been shown to have a distinct advantage over other subgroups in both socioeconomic status and health maintenance. This article provides evidence of the continued dominance of WASPs in American culture.