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Protestant America

April 11, 2002

Today I write in an unaccustomed vein. I speak as a member of a minority group, though maybe not in the usual aggrieved style of minority group members.

I am a Catholic in a Protestant country. Even if Protestants are no longer a numerical majority, they have made this country what it is, and its culture remains thoroughly Protestant. What does it feel like to be a Catholic in Protestant America?

It feels wonderful. On the whole, Protestants must be among the world’s most decent people. I feel grateful to live among them, and it’s time someone said this. They are too nice to defend themselves even when they’re smeared, as they often are.

I have serious differences with them, because I take religion seriously. I know everything that has been said against them. I know their sins, their errors, their prejudices, their dark side — even their silly side. I can criticize them too. I have criticized them in the past, and I will so in the future.

Yet sharp criticism is a far cry from vague bad-mouthing, and when I hear some malcontent running down this Protestant country as “bigoted” or “racist” I feel a mild impulse to suggest that he shut the hell up. I want to say gently, “Well, I’d sure hate to live in a country where your kind were the majority, pal.” (Vivid examples may be found on the front page of today’s paper.)

In fact one of the chief faults of Protestants is that they are too nice for their own good. They have little instinct for self-preservation. They are slow to recognize deadly enemies, because they assume that others are as decent as they are. Your typical Protestant is like Shakespeare’s Edgar in King Lear, “whose nature is so far from doing harms that he suspects none.” And this amiable but tragic defect may yet prove the ruin of this great country.

The word Protestant covers a lot of ground, from the strictest fundamentalist to the laxest liberal. Yet there is, if not a creedal common denominator, at least a specific common style — a homespun gentility shared by every sort of Protestant, an ethos of simple friendliness, a love of honest plainness, even a certain aversion to elegance (expressed in disdain for the “fancy”).

[Breaker quote: One 
Catholic's view]This makes nearly all Protestants fatally easy to impose on, easy to take advantage of. The self-effacing Protestant style is even a topic of a special kind of comedy: think of Mary Tyler Moore, Garrison Keillor, or Bob Newhart. All three are Midwesterners; Newhart is a Catholic, but all Midwesterners are virtual Protestants in this respect. Protestants are supposed to be humorless, but there is a very definite Protestant humor, dry and subtle, and the world could use more of it. If only Osama bin Laden had been raised in Indiana! He is open to criticism on several grounds, but basically I think he just needs to lighten up a little.

A Protestant might almost be defined as a man who has to be warned against his own virtues. He is nothing if not tolerant. It wasn’t always so: once upon a time Protestants could persecute heretics with the best of them. But even then they were exercising that peculiar sincerity which they have seldom lost.

At times American Protestants were suspicious of immigrants, and though their suspicions have become notorious, they were not without reason. At any rate, the suspicions were quickly abandoned, and the immigrants were welcomed as fellow Americans. Today the immigrants are glorified and the natives disparaged, as if the immigrants were the originators, rather than the beneficiaries, of tolerance.

It might be suggested that so gracious a majority deserves more grateful minorities than it has received. Nobody thanks a Protestant. His virtues are taken for granted, like the elements of nature. He doesn’t even think of asking for thanks. “Don’t mention it,” he is apt to say. Maybe more of us should insist on mentioning it, even if it embarrasses him a little. Protestants are so unassuming that even the Pope hasn’t apologized to them.

All this may help explain why President Bush is so completely at sea in the Middle East. He is learning, to his confusion and dismay, that Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat are definitely not Protestants. As a cynical son of the old Catholic Europe, with the blood of the Borgias coursing in my veins, I could have warned him; but he didn’t ask me.

Anyway, it isn’t my purpose to glorify the Protestants; today I merely want to thank them.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2002 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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