May 29, 2024

Source: Bigstock

In 2017 the pseudonymous blogger Spotted Toad appears to have coined the term “The Great Awokening” to denote the decade of identity politics mania that began about 2013.

His joke was of course a pun upon the various Great Awakening religious revivals that periodically swept Protestant America in the 1730s and the early 1800s (especially in upstate New York’s “burned-over district”), and the liberal Social Gospel movement of the late 19th century that inspired humanitarian reformers such as Jane Addams.

But Protestant history, which was long recognized as absolutely central to American history, is increasingly seen as boring, and thus all this is fading from consciousness.

Moreover, to the left, being aware of this fundamental U.S. narrative sounds bigoted. While to the right, the notion that the woke call is coming from inside the house is distressing. Thus, we see the obsession among callow rightists about declaring wokeness a foreign, un-American import by Marxists or Jews or Jewish Marxists or whatever.

“To the right, the notion that the woke call is coming from inside the house is distressing.”

Yet, a recent article in American Affairs by Sheluyang Peng called “More Christian than the Christians” makes a strong case for wokeness as an outgrowth of traditional Northern U.S. Protestant tendencies in an age of declining faith. In historian David Hackett Fischer’s famous four-layer model of British ethnicities in America, the northernmost Americans were the descendants of fiercely moralistic, cancel-culture-addicted New England Puritans. The next layer south traces culturally back to the less obnoxious Pennsylvania Quakers. Then come the feisty Scots-Irish of the Appalachians and Ozarks, and finally the conservative lowland Southerners.

Peng writes:

…wokeness appears to be a syncretic blend of Puritanism and Quakerism. Woke adherents value elite education and moralizing, seem obsessed with rooting out heretics, adhere to orthodoxy, and display a sense of personal salvation, traits that were all characteristic of Puritans, while also displaying the radical openness and commitment to egalitarianism that characterized the Quakers.

Puritans tended to be intense and Quakers nice. Put them together and you get an intolerant religion of tolerance.

Indeed, the entire American culture war might be best understood as a war over the future of Christianity, even if the combatants themselves do not recognize it in these terms. The talking points of both sides seem stuck in a previous generation, with conservatives continuing to stoke fears of Marxism and progressives continuing to stoke fears of Christian theocracy. The big irony is that it is progressives who are the new theocrats enforcing a Christian-derived morality, while conservatives increasingly abandon Christian churches and lurch toward economically populist proposals, views that Reagan-era conservatives would have called (and some still call) “Marxist.”

While there is no question that Jews achieved remarkable levels of influence in America in the later 20th century (although that may be fading at present because the antiwhite quotas promoted by the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion movement inevitably hurt Jewish chances of being hired, whether Jews personally feel they are white or not), Peng sees Jewish liberalism as, historically, a triumph of assimilation:

Whereas anti-Semites today like to blame Jews in academia for “cultural Marxism,” the correlation actually runs the other way: Jews gave up their faith and assimilated into liberal Christian values, including sometimes literally converting to Christianity. The Jews that resisted assimilation, Orthodox Jews, are a solidly Republican bloc. A similar assimilation is occurring among Asian Americans, who have swelled the ranks of the same colleges over the past few decades.

To evaluate these arguments, I looked for a data source so I could do my favorite task: counting. One of my standard techniques is to find a list that was made up by somebody reasonable for their own goals and repurpose it for my own. That’s better than making up a hypothesis and then looking for examples to support it.

So I took The Atlantic Monthly’s December 2006 feature on The 100 Most Influential Americans. The Atlantic’s team, including Benjamin Schwarz and Ross Douthat, recruited ten heavyweight American historians, such as H.W. Brands and Doris Kearns Goodwin, to nominate their picks.

While you can certainly argue over the historians’ ranking (after all, that’s the point of these kind of features), The Atlantic’s list is reasonable. The top ten names, for instance, are Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, FDR, Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin, John Marshall, Martin Luther King, Thomas Edison, and Woodrow Wilson.

Some biases are evident. The historians mostly seem to vote for individuals about whom they can find something to admire, so Roger Taney (author of the disastrous Dred Scott decision), Jefferson Davis, Huey Long, Joe McCarthy, and George Wallace don’t make the top 100. But in this prewoke era, instead of disqualifying Andrew Jackson for the Trail of Tears, he ranks No. 18 with the tagline: “The first great populist: he found America a republic and left it a democracy.”

Also, even in 2006 this historians’ list was biased toward people born before about 1925. One reason is caution. For example, the youngest of the top 100, Bill Gates (b. 1955), was chosen, not unreasonably, to represent the tech industry. But a few months later, his main rival for that honor, Steve Jobs (also b. 1955), unleashed the iPhone, the key invention of this century’s first two decades, upon the world. So public opinion would now rightly rank Jobs above Gates.

The first thing I did was tabulate basic identity demographics:

I count ten women: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Rachel Carson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, Addams, Betty Friedan, Margaret Mead, and Mary Baker Eddy. Not a bad list, although I might argue that Margaret Mead’s mentor Franz Boas was actually more influential in originating the now-dominant social constructionist perspective in academia.

Eight blacks: King, Jackie Robinson, W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass, Louis Armstrong, Thurgood Marshall, Nat Turner, and Booker T. Washington. Probably a couple too many, but sensible choices.

One Arab (Ralph Nader) and no Hispanics, Asians, or American Indians. Nader is a good selection to represent the rise of lawyers over the past sixty years in our current NIMBY era.

One striking aspect is how many of the 72 most influential white male Protestants could reasonably be called liberal, progressive, or radical.

Of course, opinions will vary. For example, was George Washington a man of the left or the right? By the standards of the British Empire in the 1770s, he was a treasonous radical. But by the standards of the American republic during the French Revolution, he tended to be center-right.

Still, white male Protestants who were considered on the progressive side in their own time would likely include Lincoln, Jefferson, FDR, Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Paine, Harry Truman, Earl Warren, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Jennings Bryan, John Dewey, LBJ, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Law Olmsted, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Bill Gates, Horace Mann, William James, Henry David Thoreau, John Brown, Ernest Hemingway, Benjamin Spock, Rev. Lyman Beecher, and John Steinbeck.

Conservatives tend to be a little rarer: e.g., John Marshall, Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, Robert E. Lee, John C. Calhoun, William Faulkner, Richard Nixon, and a number of businessmen like J.P. Morgan and Sam Walton.

This could be due to Northern regional bias on the part of The Atlantic, which was founded in Boston just before the Civil War. On the other hand, it’s not a coincidence that a famous highbrow magazine was headquartered in “the Athens of America.”

What about religious ethnicity? Note that I’m not categorizing by precise belief, if any, but by upbringing and background. For example, Henry Ford came to believe in reincarnation, but I don’t list him as a Hindu, but instead as a white Protestant.

And I’m simplifying some complicated family situations. For example, Ronald Reagan’s father was Catholic, but he was brought up in his mother’s Protestant faith, so I’m classifying Reagan as Protestant.

I note seven Jews: Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, Robert Oppenheimer, Samuel Gompers, Friedan, Walter Lippmann, and Sam Goldwyn.

That’s a healthy number, but it might be fewer than you’d expect from 21st-century discourse. For example, Emma Lazarus of the “huddled masses” poem is now often depicted as a founding father whose word is law on immigration. But she didn’t make the list.

In general, Jews didn’t get here quite in time to be extremely influential on the long course of American history. This fact tends to annoy both Jews and anti-Semites, both of whom want to overstate Jewish influence.

Six Catholics: Sanger, newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett (who is perhaps the most obscure selection), Babe Ruth, Armstrong, Enrico Fermi, and Nader, who is of Lebanese Maronite ancestry.

Where’s JFK? Granted, JFK ranks behind his vice president, LBJ (No. 44), in accomplishments that can be documented by historians. But in terms of American mythos, Johnson is of no appeal to non-historians today, while among grown-ups, Kennedy remains the most glamorous president. And, on the level of practical impact, the Kennedy family played a major role in boosting immigration. Still, the Protestant vs. Catholic struggle has almost completely vanished down the memory hole.

Two Mormons: Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

Both were remarkable men, but two Mormons is probably one too many.

So, out of the top 100, eighty were of white Protestant background (or 78 if you don’t count the two Mormon converts).

American history was, no surprise, dominated by white Protestants.


Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!