US government and politics no longer run by WASPs. Does it matter?

Neither of the top leaders in Congress nor any member of the US Supreme court is a WASP – a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. And now, for the first time in US history, none of the major party candidates for president or vice president is a WASP.

Evan Vucci/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leaves the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after services on Sunday in Wolefboro, N.H.

No matter how it turns out, the 2012 presidential election will have made history.

For the first time since the founding of the Republic, none of the major party candidates for president or vice president is a WASP – a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant – a fact that was confirmed when Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan to be his running mate.

Mr. Romney is Mormon, Mr. Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden are Roman Catholic, and President Obama – a man of mixed race – most obviously is not a WASP.

With the candidacies of Mr. Obama and Sarah Palin in 2008, the trend toward greater diversity took a big step. But this year’s election and its lack of the kind of person the Founding Fathers were – ethnically, racially, and religiously, at least – is causing widespread comment.

The faith factor: Religion's new prominence in campaign 2012

“For the first time in our country’s history the Republican party is set to nominate a presidential ticket that does not include a Protestant,” writes religion scholar Thomas Whitley on the Associated Baptist Press news blog. “And in a strange turn of events that is sure to have many WASPs scratching their heads, President Obama will be the only Protestant on either party’s ticket.”

Will it make any difference in the election results?

The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life recently reported “little evidence to suggest that concerns about the candidates’ respective faiths will have a meaningful impact in the fall elections.”

Rather than the passing of an era, the importance may be in the issues as informed by a candidate’s faith.

Although they both attend Catholic mass regularly, Ryan and Biden have very different positions on abortion, gay marriage, and the “social justice” aspects of the economy – subjects of high interest to movement conservatives, particularly evangelical Protestants.

“As Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden articulate their views, we will be tuning into an intra-Catholic conversation pitting ‘social justice’ Christians on the left versus ‘family values’ Christians on the right,” writes Boston University religion scholar Stephen Prothero on his CNN blog.

Some conservatives see Romney’s pick of Ryan in positive terms regarding the Wisconsin lawmaker’s religion.

“Choosing a Catholic as your junior partner when you’re a Mormon in a Protestant country with a significant electoral bloc of Evangelicals is a bold aspect to Mitt’s choice,” writes John O’Sullivan, editor-at-large of the National Review, who also suggests that with Ryan on the GOP ticket, Roman Catholic bishops may be inclined now to turn from opposing Obama to actively supporting Romney.

“It would have been madness even 20 years ago, but something big has happened since then to make it advantageous,” Mr. O’Sullivan writes. “The Catholics and the Evangelicals have come together over a range of social issues and are now allies. A Catholic on the ticket will soothe most of those Evangelicals anxious about Romney’s Mormonism.”

Most, but not all, Evangelicals, that is.

Pew finds that a substantial minority of registered voters who know that Romney is a Mormon – 19 percent – are uncomfortable with that fact. The number increases to 23 percent among white evangelicals.

“Most adults say that Mormonism is very different from their own religious beliefs, and only about half of the public thinks of Mormonism as a Christian religion,” Pew reported last month.

Obama faces similar unease. Nineteen percent are uncomfortable with his religion, and 17 percent say he’s a Muslim.

The decline of WASPs as the dominant group in presidential politics is reflected in the other branches of government as well.

“The hallowed halls of Congress are changing fast,” writes Mr. Prothero on his CNN blog. “There are now both Buddhists and Muslims in Congress. And Catholics, Jews and Mormons are better represented there than they are in the US population as a whole.”

That includes the leaders of both Houses of Congress. Speaker John Boehner is the Roman Catholic graduate of a Jesuit university, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is Mormon.

With the retirement of Associate Justice David Souter in 2009, the US Supreme Court became completely non-WASP. Of the nine justices today, six are Catholic and three are Jewish.

“That’s a clean sweep of all three branches of government,” writes Peter Schrag, author of “The Decline of the WASP,” on the Daily Beast.

The faith factor: Religion's new prominence in campaign 2012

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