April 11, 2002
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
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 worlds most decent people. I feel
grateful to live among them, and its time someone said this. They
are too nice to defend themselves even when theyre 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, Id sure hate to live in a country where
your kind were the majority, pal. (Vivid examples may
be found on the front page of todays 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 Shakespeares 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).
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 wasnt 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,
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 doesnt even think of asking for thanks.
Dont 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 hasnt apologized
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 didnt ask me.
Anyway, it isnt my purpose to
glorify the Protestants; today I merely want to thank them.