COMMENTARY: So, who really runs America?

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Rabbi Rudin is the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee).

UNDATED _ Have you ever wondered who really runs America?

After recently attending a series of meetings with various religious and ethnic groups, the answer seems to be that no one is in charge, and no one is truly on the"inside." At a conference with the National Urban League, a major black civil rights organization, I heard the familiar complaint that African-Americans are not significant players in shaping American society, especially in the fields of politics and business.

Blacks see themselves as an endangered community living far from America's power centers. They believe their precarious existence is due to the systemic racism that has persisted since 1619, when the first African slaves were brought to the English colonies.

Earlier this year, I heard a cry of anger from white Protestants at Pasadena's Fuller Seminary, a leading evangelical institution. They claim they are excluded from the important corridors of national power where the real decisions are made.

Despite their growing size and influence, many evangelicals perceive themselves as a beleaguered community; impotent in influencing American society.

They blame their outsider status on America's"elites"who have conducted a campaign of bigotry against evangelicals for decades. Evangelicals have been characterized as"red necks"and"crackers,"and they take offense at the repeated attacks made upon their conservative Christian faith.

But surprisingly, similar anguished cries are voiced inside the National Council of Churches, the ecumenical home of America's"mainline,"mostly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant churches: Episcopalians, United Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and many Lutherans and Baptists.

NCC officials readily admit members of their churches were once leaders in almost every sector of society. They completely dominated American life, and the"out groups"bitterly resented them for it. However, those heady days of hegemony are long past.

As America becomes more multireligious, multiethnic, and multiracial, once dominant NCC churches are losing both members and influence. While in no immediate danger of disappearing, NCC leaders worry privately about the future growth of their denominations. Increasingly, they see themselves as just another religious group in a rapidly changing America.

And the story is the same among Catholics. Many Catholic clergy and academics charge that a pervasive anti-Catholicism exists in the United States. While Catholic-bashing is not as virulent as it was during the 19th and early 20th centuries, leaders feel Catholics are still discriminated against in America's workplaces, corporate board rooms, and on university campuses.

Although Catholics comprise the largest religious group in the U.S. Congress, Catholic clergy are frustrated that several of their top agenda items, including public aid for parochial schools and abortion restrictions, remain unrealized. Like other groups in American life, many Catholics feel outside the mainstream.

The Hispanic communities are surging in population and will soon be the largest"minority"in America. But despite continuing growth, Hispanics still feel marginalized. As evidence, they point to"English only"campaigns and on-going attempts to restrict, even punish legal immigrants, many of whom are Hispanic.

Most Hispanics see an America run by unsympathetic"Anglos."Hispanics seek to change this reality by flexing their political and economic muscle on a national scale; something that has not yet happened. Meanwhile, Hispanics face severe prejudice in employment, housing, and education.

Asian-Americans registered a huge population gain in the 1990 census, but they, too, feel out of the leadership loop. Many Asian-Americans are embarrassed by the money raising scandals stemming from the 1996 presidential campaign that are linked to their community.

One Asian American told me:"Perhaps giving big contributions seemed a way to buy instant respectability, but it backfired. Now we are further away than ever from political power." And finally, it is no surprise that a recent American Jewish Committee survey indicated Jews in the United States perceive anti-Semitism as the greatest threat to their survival. The survey revealed that American Jews believe anti-Semitism is on the rise and is yet another sign they still remain outsiders, never quite at home in this country.

So blacks, evangelical Christians, mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, Hispanics, and Jews all feel alienated from power, all believing that as victims of prejudice, they are being excluded from the"real"mainstream. If this is true, who then, is running America today?

Perhaps it's aliens from outer space. If so, I'll try to interview some soon; but it will be difficult to get an appointment. After all, they're quite busy running America. It's certainly clear no one else is.