March 2nd, 2012
01:06 PM ET
Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.
By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN
(CNN) - Anyone who is old enough to remember Sen. John F. Kennedy’s run for president in 1960 knows that this used to be not just a Christian country, but a Protestant one. Admittedly, the Constitution makes the United States secular by law, but for most of our history, we have been Protestant by choice.
All that has changed in recent years. We now have a Catholic speaker of the House (John Boehner), a Catholic House minority leader (Nancy Pelosi) and a Catholic vice president (Joe Biden). Six of the nine justices on the Supreme Court are Catholics. And that guy duking it out with Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination? Rick Santorum is Catholic, too.
It wasn’t so long ago that U.S. Protestants were burning down Catholic convents to protest efforts by the Vatican to infiltrate American society and take it over from within. Today, you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see that Catholics now occupy some of the most powerful positions in the land.
Which leads me to today’s top 12 list of America’s most influential Catholics:
1-6: Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor
I know that justices are supposed to stick to interpreting the law rather than making it, especially if they adhere to the judicial philosophy of “original intent,” but I’m not buying it. When it comes to “judicial activism,” there are really only two kinds of judges: those who know they are acting and those who wrongly imagine they are not.
Throughout U.S. history, the Supreme Court has played nearly as important a role as the presidency on the race question, and a more important role than the U.S. Congress. Women seeking abortions do so under a regime written and enforced by the courts.
In a 2011 speech at Duquesne University School of Law, Scalia denied that his Catholicism affected his legal decisions. I’m not buying that either, which is why he and the five other Catholics on the Supreme Court occupy half of this list.
7: Speaker of the House John Boehner
As any child (or parent) can attest, the word “no” is powerful indeed, and as the leader of the House Republicans, John Boehner wields that power today. Before he gave the commencement address at Catholic University last spring, more than 80 professors at that university wrote an open letter to Boehner saying that the budget he pushed through the House contradicted Catholic social teachings by neglecting the poor. But Boehner continues to say “no” to the Obama administration, most recently on its decision to require Catholic-affiliated employers to cover birth control services in their health plans.
8. Vice President Joe Biden
The first Catholic vice president of the United States, Joe Biden wields by most accounts more power than many vice presidents in American history. (Remember Spiro Agnew?) And though Biden has ruffled the feathers of church authorities on the abortion question, he is an observant Catholic who attends church regularly and met with Pope John Paul II four times. “The animating principle of my faith, as taught to me by church and home,” Biden told the Christian Science Monitor in 2007, “was that the cardinal sin was abuse of power.”
9. Rick Santorum, former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania
For a while, Newt Gingrich was the Catholic Republican front-runner, but that title has been seized by Rick Santorum. Unlike Gingrich, who converted in 2009, Santorum is a cradle Catholic, and he's a more convincing fellow traveler in Christ to the religious right.
Everyone thought this election was going to be about the economy, but Santorum's mantra seems to be, "It's the culture, stupid." Santorum has grabbed headlines in recent weeks by calling President Obama a purveyor of a "phony theology" and otherwise keeping questions of faith not just on the front burner, but at a rolling boil. This weekend, Santorum said that John F. Kennedy's famous church/state speech, in Houston in 1960, made him want to "throw up" when he first read it. "I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute," he told ABC News on Sunday.
10. Archbishop Timothy Dolan
It says something about Catholic authority today that it is hard to think of a member of the Catholic hierarchy who stands among the most influential U.S. Catholics. But Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan is the most likely person for this honor. A theological conservative, Dolan was elected president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2010, and he was elevated to cardinal in Rome last month. In 2008, Dolan took on Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi for their views on abortion, and in 2009, he criticized the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Obama to speak at its commencement.
11. Stephen Colbert
The man behind the Super PAC Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow will not be happy to learn that he fell outside the top 10 here, but he is still one of the most influential Catholics in the United States today. Colbert makes his political jabs with a smile, but they sting nonetheless.
Last year, The Washington Post asked whether Colbert was “Catholicism’s best pitch man,” and he does put a very different face on a church that has been best known in recent years for sex scandals. Both Colbert and the character he plays on “The Colbert Report” are committed Catholics. In fact, Colbert (the character) loves his Catholicism so much that he gave it up last year for Lent.
Colbert (the real person) regularly books Catholics on his show and has appointed Father James Martin, S.J., as the show’s official chaplain. With Martin and other theists (and atheists), Colbert regularly discusses matters of faith. In fact, his character often gives guests discussing such questions wider berth than his more political guests.
12. Blogger Andrew Sullivan
In another era, this final slot might have gone to Garry Wills, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and public intellectual whose writing regularly addresses the intersection of faith and politics in the United States. But we now live in a digital age, so the nod goes to Andrew Sullivan, the Brit behind “The Dish,” a popular blog now hosted by The Daily Beast.
The thumbnail bio is that Sullivan is gay, Catholic and conservative, but his blog is far more nuanced (and coherent) than readers might imagine from that trifecta. In part because of his unpredictability, his site is the go-to blog for all things political and cultural. And the reading is easy because of Sullivan’s refusal to pull his punches. (Obama’s “uninspiring” state of the union was, in his words, a litany of “cramped, tedious, mediocre micro-policies.”)
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.