The realization that you are not the center of the universe—that other people’s needs are just as important as your own—is a hallmark of being an adult. True, there are lots of 50-year-olds who throw tantrums if they don’t get their way, but for most of us, the experience of growing up instills a more realistic perspective about the place we occupy in the universe.
It is not, however, only individuals who come to learn this lesson—groups do, as well. We can see this happening now in the United States, a nation founded, developed, and ruled primarily by white Protestants for more than 200 years. White Protestants were the dominant majority for most of our history, setting norms in such a pervasive way that their influence was simply called “life.”
But that is rapidly changing. By the year 2042, white people will be a minority in the United States and they are already a minority of the babies being born. And Protestants slipped into minority status in 2012 as religious diversity grew and religious affiliation dwindled.
The effects of these demographic shifts were seen in the November election. President Barack Obama won in part because of the rapid growth of Latino voters, who chose him over Republican candidate Mitt Romney by 71 percent. He also won 62 percent of nonreligious voters, 69 percent of Jewish voters, and 73 percent of Asian American voters.
Not everyone was happy with the results. “It’s not a traditional America anymore,” Bill O’Reilly mourned on Fox News as the election results came in. Ironically, O’Reilly neglected to mention the fact that Irish Catholics—such as himself—were once considered a threat to “traditional America.” In the mid-1800s, so-called nativists objected to Catholic immigrants becoming citizens, and there were riots in cities such as St. Louis when Catholics tried to vote. Other minority groups have faced similar hostility in the past, including Jewish Americans and Asian Americans. Even today many Muslim Americans are targets of bigotry because they’re falsely seen as unpatriotic and as “other.”
It’s a repetitive pattern: Once outsiders become insiders, many of them want to slam the door on others who are eager to come in. In a swiftly changing nation, how can we keep the door open? How do we recognize the truth—that today’s changing demographics merely reflect America’s continuing journey as a vibrant immigrant nation that absorbs new ideas and identities, mixes them into a creative stew, and churns out innovation, opportunity, and promise?
One place to look for guidance is in how groups have dealt with these changes in the past—in particular, to a dwindling group that used to run the country: white ecumenical Protestants. At the height of their influence—in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s—a number of Protestant intellectual leaders spent less time plotting how to maintain their denominational power and more time focusing on self-examination. They asked themselves hard questions about the sin of racism, colonialism, imperialism, American exceptionalism—and didn’t shrink from the answers. Despite the temptation to cling to their dominant status, these leaders—mostly Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists, Lutherans, and Episcopalians—worked hard to publicly examine their own shortcomings.
American historian David Hollinger describes this remarkable process in his article, “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity.” Hollinger offers new insights about this once-mighty group, as well as a counternarrative to the conventional wisdom that the shrinking number of ecumenical Protestants means they’ve lost their footprint of influence in American life today.
As Hollinger shows—and this should be encouraging to those who feel threatened or marginalized by “newcomers” today—is that honest self-questioning and engagement with a changing world can actually extend the influence of your group. In the case of ecumenical Protestants whose institutional decline is usually equated with failure, Hollinger claims almost the opposite: Their inward efforts for self-renewal and outward efforts for justice relied on liberal values that in turn seeped into America and took root. Pluralism, freedom, individualism, and democracy all grew within the Protestant tradition and are an important part of our public culture today.
That said, it is important to acknowledge other less positive consequences of the Protestant leaders’ self-critique and engagement with a diverse world. For one thing, as leaders emphasized global justice issues, they left behind their followers in the pews who cared less about such far-away matters and more about local congregational concerns, biblical teachings, and the spiritual nurturing that fed their soul.
Beyond that, these leaders were increasingly under attack from powerful evangelical and religious-right organizations that promoted a Christian America, biblical literalism, and the dangers of engaging the outside world. To top it off, secular civil rights and justice groups—moving more rapidly on issues they were jointly committed to—became the dominant players in the fight for social justice.
Protestant leaders have left us a complicated legacy, but it is one that offers useful tips and lessons for us today. First, those on the frontlines of social change need to stay connected with everyday people. This means, for example, that progressives who promote the benefits of a diverse nation need to make a strong case for their cause and build a broad coalition that includes white working-class Americans, along with communities of color.
Second, the loss of institutional dominance doesn’t mean the end of influence. Groups should look beyond their shrinking numbers to join forces with diverse allies who share common concerns. As they participate in multi-issue alliances, their institutional identity may have to become more diffuse, but their collective clout can grow.
And third, achieving an accurate understanding of how the world works—and who its people are—is the only way to survive. When self-centeredness bumps into the real world, sooner or later the real world wins.
The truth is that we are all minorities who are connected to each other—tied in a “single garment of destiny,” as Martin Luther King Jr. said. Ecumenical Protestant leaders recognized this truth more than 50 years ago. It is our task to act upon it today.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.