May 19th, 2010
08:58 AM ET

Do 6 Catholics + 3 Jews = 9 Protestants?

Religion scholar Stephen Prothero will be a regular contributor to CNN's Belief Blog. With his bestselling book "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn't," Prothero became the country's leading explainer of how religion undergirds much of American life and history - in ways that most us don't realize. With his new book, "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," the Boston University professor has taken his franchise global. A few times each week, Prothero will offer posts on the hidden faith angles behind the news.

By Stephen Prothero, CNN Belief Blog contributor

I think I might have done the math wrong.

Shortly after President Obama nominated Elena Kagan (who is Jewish) to replace Justice John Paul Stevens (who is Protestant) on the Supreme Court, I was quoted in Boston Globe, Beliefnet, and CNN stories, saying that her nomination represented one giant step away from the not-so-good-old-days of Protestant parochialism. "I don't think this means Protestant America is over,” I told the AP, “but I do think it means the old way of thinking about Protestant America is over."

On Monday morning in USA Today I argued, against bloggers like Beliefnet’s Rod Dreher, that the religious commitments of judges matter. I then called for a more religiously diverse Supreme Court. Why not an agnostic? An evangelical? A Muslim?

In all these articles, I was doing the math like this: 6 Catholics + 3 Jews = 0 Protestants. I’m no longer sure that’s right.

Shortly after I filed my USA Today piece, I had a conversation with Nora Rubel, a University of Rochester religion professor and an observant Jew. Professor Rubel said that most Catholics in America think pretty much like most Protestants, so the Supreme Court’s Protestant/Catholic mix doesn’t really matter. I then observed that many Reform Jews are equally Protestantized, which led us to wonder whether the Jewish/Christian mix doesn’t really matter either.

The Protestant ethos has long ruled American political institutions.  The current Congress is 55 percent Protestant, and every president except for John F. Kennedy has been an heir of the Reformation. But Protestantism also colors America’s religious institutions, and not always inside the lines of Protestant denominations. 

Today many U.S. Catholics and Jews think like Protestants. They believe that religion is something we choose as individuals rather than inherit as communities, and they view it primarily in terms of faith rather than practice.  None of this comes from either the Catholic brain of Aquinas or the Jewish mind of Maimonides. The progenitor of this faith-based understanding of religion (who also happens to be the patron saint of religion rulings at the U.S. Supreme Court) is the American Protestant thinker William James, who famously defined religion as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”

When Supreme Court justices genuflect before this subjective understanding of religion - and most, perhaps all, of today’s sitting justices do - they are thinking like Protestants.  And there is little to suggest that Elena Kagan, whose bat mitzvah occurred in a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, would not go and do likewise.

So if you do the math more carefully, it may go something like this: 6 Catholics + 3 Jews = 9 Protestants.  Either way, we could use more religious diversity on the Supreme Court.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Courts • Judaism • Opinion • Protestant

soundoff (820 Responses)
  1. JasonInAtlanta

    CNN is heading down the same path as Fox News by granting this ridiculous "Blog" headline status...

    May 19, 2010 at 11:41 am |
  2. Cris

    I think I'd rather take my chances with a believer running things than an athiest. Last time I checked Stalin, Pol Pot and Chairman Mao were all atheists. Each one of them killed more people than Hitler.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:40 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Ah I did not realise they did what they did because they were atheists. Thanks for that.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:15 pm |
    • Seth

      LOL @ Cedar Rapids , It's funny when they love to bring that up knowing that they did not do what they did because they are Atheist or in the Name of Atheism... Unlike many eras through-out time when people die by the name of "insert god name here". I agree that all man-kind can do wicked things, I accept that fact however I do not support the idea that all atheist are baby eating monsters just like I do not support the idea that all religious people are crazy fundamentalist people, only some through out each are...

      I do gotta say babies with a side dish of tar-ball oil sounds good tonight...

      May 19, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
  3. Dick M.

    Why an agnostic but no atheist? That's discrimination.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:40 am |
  4. JIm

    "They (Protestants) believe that religion is something we choose as individuals rather than inherit as communities". Um, Professor Prothero, you might want to Wikipedia John Calvin sometime. Calvin's theology of predestination is the cornerstone of the Presbyterians, Lutherans, and several other Protestant churches.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:40 am |
  5. Suzie

    I am amazed by the intolerance and hatred I have read here in these comments by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists, Agnostics....everyone. Our society has lost all remnants of politeness and tolerance. All are to blame. Public education obviously has failed us. Let's have debate without name calling. When you resort to name calling, you have just lost the argument.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:40 am |
    • Wake-Up

      There should be no tolerance for a religion that wants to kill or enslave all whom do not believe as they do.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:46 am |
  6. RAFritz

    I guess I shouldn't hold my breath waiting for a pagan Supreme Court Justice.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:40 am |
  7. Sean

    I suppose Atheist, Buddhist, and all other non-Catholic, and non-Jewish believers are inapt for a position as Judge. What scars me is that women are being appointed, showing that men are becoming inapt too. The more women we have in high positions, the more trouble we will have, but there is no avoiding that now. Messiah, come soon!

    May 19, 2010 at 11:39 am |
    • RAFritz

      Why do you think women are not qualified for high positions? And how does that make men "inapt"? And why are the other religions you named "inapt"?

      May 19, 2010 at 11:44 am |
    • sam

      I can smell your fear, Sean–yum, yum. Men have made a bloodbath of this world–well, straight men. Now we have a chance to change things.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:53 am |
  8. Mike Karson

    There shouldn't be that big of a deal about what religions are supported in congress. Elections and appointments should be made based on the character of the person, not by what groups they are associated with. Our outlook on them should be based on the goodwill they use when making decisions that will affect others.
    By the way, speaking to you athiests, many, many more people have died for their religion than have died for our great country. What more proof do you want?

    May 19, 2010 at 11:39 am |
  9. JustObvious

    When a sitting Catholic Supreme Court Judge cannot recconize that a memorial cross is a uniquely Christian symbol, how can it be that they are impartial? Check out a few graveyards for reference. See how many 'crosses' are used in houses of worship outside the Christian faith.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:38 am |
  10. Craig

    While I do believe a persons religion may shape some of their political views it is not information that should even be given or compared. Who cares what religion they are. The candidates should be nominated by merit alone. There is no need for any kind of diversity in regards to religion, it shouldnt even be mentioned period.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:38 am |
  11. Angela D

    do you think the photographer could have taken a better picture? it reminds me of a kindergarden class taking a class picture and no one is looking into the camera.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:38 am |
  12. Daryn Guarino

    I contend that we are all athiests, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:37 am |
    • Seth

      Quit using R. Dawkins comments !!! =P but yes so true

      May 19, 2010 at 11:38 am |
  13. Richard Aberdeen

    Well, perhaps if a Protestant like Martin Luther King, Jr. was available, that would be a good thing. But given the human rights track records of most Protestant today, I dont' see where placing one on the Supreme Court would be much of an improvement to the nine corporate butt kissers currently residing. Oh, and the one responder who said we should have nine atheists on the Supreme Court. Apparently he wouldn't mind living under Mussolini, who was an avowed atheist. I have rarely met an atheist who is less naive than a grade school child, at best.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:36 am |
  14. John

    Cedar – By systematically creating the illusion that one person is somehow more important than the masses. One person is offended by something, so they sue, and the ACLU makes everyone else pay for it by getting legislation against whatever it was. In time, you can't fart in public without someone getting bent over it. The next thing you know, we're zombies walking around with our head up our #$# because people Obama figure they'll fix everything with bigger government and more taxes. We are so in dept, and just wait to health care kicks in 2011. The %45 who work in this country will really be taxed to pay for those who don't work. I'm also in favor of the Arizona Imagraition law!!!!!

    May 19, 2010 at 11:35 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      'By systematically creating the illusion that one person is somehow more important than the masses'
      Ah so the good of the people matters more than one person, sounds a hell of a lot like communism.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:13 pm |
  15. Anon

    The fact that so many people are bickering about the implications of religious diversity is ridiculous. So many argue for the separation of church and state, and yet fighting for religious diversity in the system defies separation of church and state. Atheism is aptly named as a theism, a system of belief, and as such is just another religious component. I personally am a Christian, and I find it very insulting to see so many comments about the lack of intelligence in religion practicing people. Atheism as a theism, is also considered a religious belief. With that said, anyone who throws out comments about lack of intelligence insults themself in doing so. These people were chosen for the task because of a work record and an educational record, not because of where they worshipped.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:35 am |
  16. john

    My understanding is that most Jews actively support Israel, Catholics get their church leadership from Rome and the Protestants......the majority are U.S. based, right?

    May 19, 2010 at 11:35 am |
  17. Ron

    The fool has said in his heart,"there is no God". Psalm 14:1

    May 19, 2010 at 11:34 am |
    • Seth

      "A Fool will read scriptures from any book that they shall believe to be written by their God". MyMadeUpBook 14.2

      May 19, 2010 at 11:37 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      '"A Fool will read scriptures from any book that they shall believe to be written by their God". MyMadeUpBook 14.2'
      Is that the King Ralph version? If not you are a heretic!

      May 19, 2010 at 12:11 pm |
  18. benjammin'

    I have just been advised that the point of all religious beliefs is fear.....fear of the unknown.....fear of what happens when we are no longer of this life....hmmmm.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:33 am |
  19. John

    So, religion is a choice? If so, then there certainly shouldn't be any governmental rights or protections based on ones choice. After all, isn't that one of the main arguments against providing rights to gay people? It's ironic to me that religious people, who are religious by choice, often use the choice argument against gay Americans. They claim that people aren't born gay and that they are gay by choice. Following to their "logical" conclusion, people shouldn't have "special" rights based on their choices. Well, now that I know that religion is choice, I'd like their "special" rights and protections removed because they can change and choose not to be religious.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:33 am |
  20. Jim

    Your premise that the SCOTUS Catholics think like Protestants is absolutely wrong, and obvoulsy cast from an outside distance. Anyone who knows even a cursory background of justice Scalia knows he is a devout Catholic and would laugh at the prosepct that he "thinks like a protestant". Did you know that one of his sons is a Catholic priest and pastor of the justice's parish? There are similar indications of devout Catholicism from at least 3 of other justices. It's not that any of this is ultimately relevant to the makeup of the court, but it certainly casts doubt on your credibility.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:32 am |
    • Jim

      Sorry for the spelling mistakes, and I should have also have mentioned that Scalia has 9 kids and worships in what is viewed as the most conservative Catholic dioceses in the US. Sure, you can claim that many US "Catholics" think like Protestants, but several the particular Catholics on the SCOTUS are indeed the real thing. Perhaps you should investigate into that curiosity.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:39 am |
    • kryg

      Jim: A justice whether he is a Protestant, Catholic or Jew should think as a just judge. Don't label them as "Catholic justice," "Jewish justice," and "Protestant justice." Justices are simply lawyers who were selected because they were considered the best ones who can promote justice in the land. If their religion gave them the "tools" to be the best justices, what's wrong with that?

      May 19, 2010 at 12:59 pm |
    • Jim

      Nothing is wrong with that. Stay focused on the subject at hand. To claim that a Catholic SCOTUS member just thinks like a protestant is wrong.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:10 pm |
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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.