THE ``Protestant Establishment'' retains its disproportionate economic clout in the United States.
Since the 1930s, people in three mainline Protestant religions -
Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ - have lost some ground relative to those affiliated with other religious groups, particularly Roman Catholics and Jews. Nonetheless, WASPS (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants) are still overrepresented among ``power elites'' - those in top business, political, legal, and cultural positions.
``Religion is still there and still making a difference, and we need to pay attention to it,'' says James Davidson, a Purdue University professor who has looked at the religious issue afresh.
With two graduate students (Ralph Pyle and David Reyes), Professor Davidson examined the religious affiliations of people listed in ``Who's Who in America'' in 1930 and 1992.
The results challenge the view of some academics that the shrinking proportion of Protestants among those proclaiming church affiliation, the enforcement of civil rights laws preventing religious discrimination, and the inroads of non-WASPS into the upper echelons of American society have badly eroded the Protestant Establishment's influence.
Protestant ``hegemony'' remains, says Davidson, a Roman Catholic himself. The change since 1930 is relatively small. ``If you stepped into a board meeting of a business giant, our research shows that you still would find several Episcopalians, a few Presbyterians, probably a Jew and a Catholic, and no Baptists,'' he says.
The weakness of Baptists and Disciples of Christ in the power structure, Davidson speculates, may explain the alarm of the ``Christian left'' at the prospect of the Republicans bringing more members of the ``Christian right'' into the power elite in Washington. Both right and left have ``religious prejudices'' based on ``stereotypes, caricatures, and images'' of each other, he says.
Results of the study by the three Purdue sociologists include:
r The three mainline Protestant groups accounted for 53 percent of the combined power elite (bankers, businesspeople, politicians, diplomats, judges, lawyers, and military officers) and the cultural elite (educators, scientists, doctors, engineers, editors and authors, artists and actors, and religious and social workers) in the early 1930s; and 35 percent in 1992.
r Episcopalians in 1992 had 7.04 times as many listees among America's elite as might be expected based on their proportion of total US church membership, up from 6.34 times in 1930.
r Presbyterians had 2.75 times the power entries in 1992; 3.35 times in 1930. United Church of Christ members dropped from 5.65 in 1930 to 2.62 in 1992.
r Unitarian-Universalists and Quakers were the most overrepresented proportionately of all religious groups among the cultural elites - 14.3 and 12.7 times in 1992. But their business and political power has declined since the 1930s. Jews, underrepresented in the 1930s, were 5.17 times overrepresented by 1992 in business and politics, and 7.23 times in culture. Catholics were less underrepresented in 1992 than in 1930 in both fields. Christian Scientists in 1992 were 2.09 times overrepresented in power fields, up from 1.96 times in 1930. In 1930, they were 1.22 times overrepresented in culture, but comparative figures for 1990 were not available because of their small numbers. Baptists and Disciples of Christ lost ground over the 60-year period.
Davidson says mainline Protestants will have more than their ``fair share'' of influence in American society for several more decades. ``People at the top of our society aren't likely to give up power and privilege freely,'' he says.
Individuals from established groups, he argues, maintain their prominence, especially among power elites, by inheriting money, insisting that the best preparatory schools and universities (from which many graduated) admit their children, and appointing each other to high position. They want business colleagues, for example, to share their attributes, lifestyles, and views.
Also, Davidson says, establishment Protestants raise their children to be leaders, part of the elite, and to look out for their country. They pass on a ``theology of prosperity,'' holding that ``God has blessed them'' with power and privilege.