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. Nils

    Religion should be a private matter and not be considered in the selection process, unless the candidate itself mixes religion with the law he has to interpret.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:08 pm |
  2. Thinkman

    We are still in a world and a United States ruled and guided by religious belief. If you thought that is took a long time to get a black/white president, I think it may take even longer to elect an agnostic or humanist. Once that happens, I think we will have come a long way indeed .

    May 19, 2010 at 12:08 pm |
  3. Mark C

    Yeah, I figured an article like this would bring out the nutjobs. I haven't been disappointed.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:07 pm |
  4. don Juan

    For all who think there is a seperation of church and state. What do you think our laws are based on? 9 prottys are a lot different than 9 muslims. Careful what you wish for you may just get it.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:07 pm |
  5. Sid


    May 19, 2010 at 12:05 pm |
    • RAFritz

      If only!

      May 19, 2010 at 1:21 pm |
  6. George W

    @ CHUCK who said, "Why not put a satin worshiper in there if you want equal representation"...
    I am not into satin. I much prefer wool blends. Just sayin'.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:04 pm |
  7. Sniffit

    WRONG. Your math is an epic fail.

    6 catholics + 3 jews = non-issue spawning idiot pseudo-journalism attempting to senstationalize a non-existing controversy to drum up ad revenue.

    Geez. Did you fail 3rd grade math?

    May 19, 2010 at 12:03 pm |
  8. prgmgr

    Mandating a SC that reflects the religious affiliations of the country they preside over would be to force inclusion of church into state.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
  9. vel

    Considering all of the justices believe in their own particular imaginary friend that hates anyone that doesn't believe in it, I find it scary that they have anything to do with tell humans how to behave in the real world.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
  10. Captain Gort

    Read: "The Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" (avail on Amazon) and draw your own conclusions.....

    May 19, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
  11. David

    @Jeff Stein

    How arrogant and small-minded of you. I would have respected your opinion had you worded it differently, which you well could have.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:01 pm |
  12. Rose

    There is no way to have a seperation of church and state. If you believe in God and what God teaches us, than you cannot kill, (abortion) no matter what. Thou shall NOT KILL. Abortion is murder, check out Blood Money trailer clip.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:00 pm |
    • Luke

      Sure you can. Simply removing the idea that abortion is a religious idea makes it fit very easily into our nation's concrete and just separation of church and state. Seriously, why do you, as a religious person, get to claim that the idea of abortion is bad? Why do you own that thought? It is just a matter of morals, which is not owned by anyone and translates across creeds and into the brain of the secular mind.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:14 pm |
  13. Alan

    This guy gets paid to write irrelevant stuff like this??

    May 19, 2010 at 11:59 am |
  14. prgmgr

    Shouldn't "Separation of Church and State" coupled with "Religious Freedom" produce religious irrelevancy as it pertains to SC nominees? By adhering to Separation of Church and State, the religious beliefs of candidates should not be considered. Professional track record, and ability to interpret the applicability of law in various scenarios should be the ONLY factors for consideration – similar religious affiliations of SC appointees could very well be nothing more than coincidence.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:59 am |
  15. Hank

    I'd be surprised if very many of them are actually religious. Everyone knows you have to appear religious to get political positions, so the result is...an *appearance* of religious belief. Who knows the reality. For example, the vast majority of Americans claim to be Christian, yet most have never cracked open a bible (a Gallup poll showed 38% of Americans believe the entire bible was written *after* Jesus's death). This is all just remnants of a previous time.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:59 am |
  16. Walter

    The whole political system has been so geared toward WASP bashing that choosing a White Anglo Saxon Protestant for an office has is a political "No,no.". The political pendulum in this county is very wide and a social energy equilibrium has yet to be realized.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:58 am |
  17. MartinSA

    those people that keep decrying the religious as being exclusive to logic really need to get their own rhetoric handed to them by a jesuit instructor before keeping to that claim.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:57 am |
    • Mark C

      I went to a Jesuit high school. Not particularly impressed.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:14 pm |
    • MartinSA

      @ MarkC
      going to a Jesuit high school is not quite the same as being taught by a Jesuit. were you taught by a Jesuit?

      May 19, 2010 at 1:01 pm |
  18. MarvinGardens

    The argument of "there should be more atheists, more muslims, more agnostics on the Supreme Court" is ridiculous and takes away from the education and experience of those appointed to be on the Court. It's just like the argument of there should be more African American owners of NFL teams. Is anyone stopping them from buying one? Buy a team then, don't expect one should be given to you. I like to think that the most qualified and experienced person for the job would be the one to be nominated for the Supreme Court. Not "Oh, we have an atheist retiring from the Supreme Court so we need to appoint a new one." How is that fair? Religion has no place in the courtroom. The judges decide the law based on the law, not religion. It's the judges' professional experiences, backgrounds, education and makeup that makes the Supreme Court diverse. There's white, black, men, women, young and old and they all bring a different point of view to the table. However, they must all interpret the law and make an informed decision. That decision is not based on religion....read their decisions. I have. There's nothing stopping an atheist, agnostic, muslim, etc. from being appointed. I wouldn't have a problem with one being appointed either. But I would have a problem with one being appointed just because they are one.

    And enough of the "genious" atheists who don't believe in "fairy tales." One minute you are arguing for more diversity and the next you are totally demeaning those who believe in a religion. Make up your minds – diversity or I'm always right?

    May 19, 2010 at 11:57 am |
    • Howie

      If by diversity you mean lending credence to ideas and beliefs that are absolutely false, then I'm not into diversity at all.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:07 pm |
    • MarvinGardens

      Well Howie – that really shows your level of education and your character. I bet if I said that I believe only white males should be on the Supreme Court it would cause quite a stir. Yet you find it acceptable to discriminate against those who believe in a religion simply because you don't.

      And yo wonder why articles like this are written? Way to take the bait buddy

      May 19, 2010 at 12:30 pm |
    • Howie

      I just read an interesting article about an African tribal Shaman who used a spell to ward off crocodiles from his people's stretch of the river. When a young woman was eaten by a croc. he was asked how it could have happened. His response, I didn't protect that exact spot. So, am I supposed to credit his claims of crocodile clearing power in the face of evidence to the contrary in the name of diversity? All religious claims have the same level of validity as this shaman's claims to have power over the crocodiles.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
    • MarvinGardens

      You're right Howie. Everyone who believes in religion is naive and lacks intelligence. I guess you should be glad that people like us exist so you can point out to everyone just how superior and more intelligent you are. Obviously, we are all just as dimwitted and misinformed as that shaman.

      New Rule – in order to be appointed to the Supreme Court, you must possess NO religious view whatsoever. This will ensure that only the most intelligent people in the country are appointed.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
    • Howie

      I like your 'New Rule"! Let's take it one step further – only people without any religious belief are eligible to be on the supreme court or elected to any public office. Let rationality rule!

      May 19, 2010 at 1:18 pm |
    • cb

      Marvin – Well said!!!

      And enough of the "genious" atheists who don't believe in "fairy tales." One minute you are arguing for more diversity and the next you are totally demeaning those who believe in a religion. Make up your minds – diversity or I'm always right?

      I love your comment! Judges determine the outcome of the case based on evidence proven, not on religion!

      May 19, 2010 at 1:24 pm |
  19. J

    78.4% of American adults identified themselves as Christian in 2008.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:57 am |
    • Seth

      to be fair most of those polls are no-where scientific and good to measure upon, someone might say sure I am a Christian just due to family, friends, and others when they do not really have a official religion, nor attend church and many other aspects. The % of really religious people in this country has gone down in the last 10-20 years dramatically..

      May 19, 2010 at 12:00 pm |
  20. Sled

    Just like in Mexico and other 20 countries in Latin America and dozens more in the world where church and state are separated, most or citizens are religious...but it is not admissible to express or act religiously, not even mention God in the actions of the law, government, needless to say the court. Just like schools. Teachers can be whatever they are...they don't teach they believes nor teach by them or are fired. I have always wondered why so many countries have achieve that, and the United States simply won't.....

    May 19, 2010 at 11:55 am |
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About this blog

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.