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. Joel

    Mr. Prothero,

    You end your commentary noting that the supreme court needs more diversity. Diversity soley for the sake of diversity is of no benefit to anybody. If you are going to call for more diversity, it would be helpful if you give specific examples of judicial decisions in which a lack of religious diversity resulted in problematic decisions of the court. In the last fifteen years I have little knowledge of the religions of the justices biasing, in an obvious and material fashion, their jurisprudence. You may have evidence to justify your call for diversity – but if you do not, please do not make unfounded calls for diversity when the only basis for your demand is a lack of diversity.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:24 pm |
  2. PAUL

    Our justice system has much more things to worry about than what religion our justices are. How about the fact justice is based on income? or its many inconsistancies for punishments? this is nothing.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:24 pm |
  3. Rapunzel

    I agree that the Supreme Court could do with more relgious diversity. Let's have someone on there who is Hindi, someone who is Buddhist, someone who is Muslim, someone who is LDS, someone who is Jewish, and then a couple of Protestants and a couple of Catholics. Much more religiously balanced Supreme Court then!

    May 19, 2010 at 12:23 pm |
  4. Demetri

    Great article. Well said about the topic of religion and the new SCOTUS nominee.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:22 pm |
  5. RDM

    Neither Jews or Catholics have a tradition of sending their children to be educated in public schools. When our country was founded, public schools for everyone was a uniquely American and Protestant concept and the common ground of public education is really what makes us one nation of many backgrounds. Which of the supreme court justices were educated in public schools as children?

    May 19, 2010 at 12:21 pm |
    • Tina

      How many wealthy Protestants were educated in public schools? I went to a public school that had plenty of Catholic and Jewish students. Except in special cases, this has far more to do with $$$ than religion.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:25 pm |
    • kryg

      I know of many Catholics who studied in public schools and state universities, including a handful from the military academies – Annapolis, West Point, and Air Force Academy. Many generals are Catholics as well. I think Catholics ethos has a greater emphasis on public service than Protestant ethos. Protestants in my opinion are more into business, capitalism, and other profit-making ventures.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:13 pm |
  6. scepticus

    I agree with the point being made. ANd in my opinion, a good relevant point. But irrelevant too.
    Aren't you glad that the Protestant ethos has made most Americans secure enough that not one of the nine top justices being Protestant is a non-issue?
    Which other moral, civilizational, religious, political or cultural institution in the world has allowed this? Present, past? I for one, am grateful for the ethos, even though I am not a Protestant!

    When I see a Protestant Prime Minister of France/Italy/Spain, or a Catholic PM of Sweden or a Muslim PM of Britain or a Christian head of state of any nation east of Morocco and west of India, I will concede that America is not unique.

    America rocks.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:20 pm |
  7. Richard

    If favorite fairy tale is a valid category of evaluation how about a firm believer in Alice in Wonderland?

    May 19, 2010 at 12:20 pm |
  8. George

    Wow. I've never viewed the composition of the Supreme Court with regard to religious representation. But now that I have, I'm thinking there are way too many Jews represented, considering there are 310 million people in America, then there must be approximately 103 million Jews living in America ? Yes / No ? No wonder all those conspiracists think that Israel runs America !!

    May 19, 2010 at 12:19 pm |
  9. Joyce

    Hmmm....I didn't realize that all Protestants think alike or all Jews, or all Catholics or Muslims, etc. We are all individuals with opinions, beliefs, etc. that are formed by all of our life experiences....not just what religion we choose or don't choose to practice.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:18 pm |
  10. jim


    May 19, 2010 at 12:17 pm |
  11. Caitie

    How is "separation of church and state" defined, anyway? It seems as if each individual has a different concept of what this looks like. Discussing the religious makeup of the SC is not directly related to this separation. Everyone has some kind of belief (or worldview if you prefer) system, and each justice will make decisions through the filter of their personal experience and beilefs. You can separate the church and the state (we don't have a State Church after all) but you cannot separate beliefs and state unless you separate people from the state.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:17 pm |
  12. Brenda

    It strikes me quite strongly that this concept that religion is a voluntary personal matter rather than an unchanging condition one is born into has been key in allowing Americans to live relatively free of open religious conflict throughout our history. It makes separation of church and state possible and is possible because of the separation of church and state. I am a Buddhist - this is a deeply-held Buddhist value, not just a Protestant value. It is a deeply-held American value - although of course there are those who dissent. But without it, how can pluralism survive?

    May 19, 2010 at 12:17 pm |
  13. MarvinGardens

    Furthermore, the Supreme Court does not make the law....they interpret and apply it against the set of facts in front of them. Look at Congress if you want to measure the diversity of those who are "telling you how to live your life." I'm not saying you'll find much religous diveristy within Congress either. But again, it's those most qualified that should be appointed or elected to those positions. These are not survey group positions. Not every group needs a representative just to have one.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:15 pm |
  14. kryg

    9 Protestants? No way! Majority of Catholics and Jews are more educated and broadminded than most Protestants.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:14 pm |
  15. Steve

    I'm sorry, but will CNN kindly shut-up about the number of Catholics, Jews, Protestants, etc? They aren't appointed to act as religious leaders, we have this concept of separation of Church and state, and their only obligation with regard to religion is to ensure that freedom of religion remains and isn't unfairly burdened. They're not their to promote their own religion. CNN has turned into one of the most biased news organizations. Where's the story about Google on the front page with its Wi-fi spying? Where are all the other major stories that CNN selectively ignores in favor of parroting this story over and over again?

    May 19, 2010 at 12:13 pm |
  16. Dave

    Your statement that "every president except for John F. Kennedy has been an heir of the Reformation" is not correct. There have been 8 other Presidents who weren't Protestant, not even Christian....

    Aethist Presidents:
    Andrew Johnson
    Rutherford B Hayes

    Unitarian Presidents: (Unitarian beliefs do not include a trinity and do not worship Christ and are not Christian and therefore not Protestant)
    John Quincy Adams
    Millard Fillmore
    William Howard Taft

    Quaker Presidents: (Quaker beliefs accept the Bible as the word of God, but do not worship Christ and are not "Christian" and therefore not "Protestant")
    Herbert Hoover
    Richard Nixon

    Deist Presidents (nature oriented, more like Pagan beliefs than anything Christian, certainly not worshipping Christ)
    Thomas Jefferson

    May 19, 2010 at 12:13 pm |
    • Mark C

      Quakers and Unitarians are certainly "heirs to the reformation"whether you want to consider them christian by your narrow definition or not.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:21 pm |
    • Mark C

      Oh, and by the way, Quakers most certainly do worship Christ and consider themselves Christians.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:25 pm |
    • Luke

      I'd argue that Thomas Jefferson was a raging angry Athiest, but point taken nontheless.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
  17. gary

    whatever happened to separation of church and state? who cares, as long they can do thier jobs!

    May 19, 2010 at 12:13 pm |
  18. saenntru

    only 2% of jews and they are 30% of supreme court and God knows how many govt seats they control? makes u wonder

    May 19, 2010 at 12:10 pm |
    • Mark C

      No, Dr. Goebels, it does not make us wonder. Speak for yourself.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:11 pm |
  19. cb

    There are two types of people in the world: Honest seekers of truth, and protectors of a belief (or unbelief in your case) system. I can see from your reply that you are not open to truth if it is not what you want to believe. I've had atheists come to my seminars that are in both categories.
    It doesn't take long to figure out which camp they are in. Some just honestly don't believe there is a God, but you can have open and honest discussions with them. Others have just set their heart against God, they become enraged when I tell them that God doesn't believe in atheists.
    No-one can say there is no God because you would have to be God to know what is or isn't out there. An agnostic says I don't know if there is a God, and neither do you. Here again you would have to be God to know whether there is or isn't someone who knows if there is a God or not. Either way you are making yourself God, and judging by your email you are probably in that category.
    There is a difference between real "science," and "scientific naturalism." Scientific Naturalism is a philosophical worldview that states: "There is no supernatural." Real science has limits. Real science is neutral in regards to religion, not anti. Most evolutionary scientists have trouble recognizing where their science ends, and their philosophical worldview begins. Learn to recognize the difference.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:10 pm |
    • Howie

      'Real Science' does not have limits, the only limits are our understanding of science. Science is not neutral on religion – there can be nothing that is supernatural, because the natural world is all there is. And finally, while I cannot definitively say that there is no being with a higher consciousness and greater powers than humans, I can say that all religions are clearly false. This is proven every day in every way. Show me one tiny bit of evidence for the validity of any religious claim, and I will consider it with an open mind. Trouble is, no such evidence exists.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:29 pm |
    • cb

      I forgot to add that my comment comes from:

      The Doctrinal Statement of
      Truth and Science Ministries:

      May 19, 2010 at 1:03 pm |
    • cb

      @ Howie – You are so right about "RELIGION".
      RELIGION -is humans working their way to God, but fail. It is full of corruption, lies, preaches doctrines that are not within the God's Holy Scriptures and deceives.

      CHRISTIANITY – is God coming to men and women through a "RELATIONSHIP" with Christ Jesus.

      For the nondenominational Christian, Acts 17:24 settles that question. "God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, ..."
      There is a group that tries to combine the two worldviews: Theistic Evolution. (Somebody made it, but He used natural processes to do it.) This is still basically Naturalism, for all practical purposes, it still falls under the same category. When people try to combine these two they almost always deny a literal interpretation of scripture, and try to find some way of getting long ages of time into the Bible.
      1) Let's look at our Biblical Foundation:
      Isaiah 45:18 says: "For thus saith the LORD that created the heavens; God himself that formed the earth and made it; he hath established it, he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited: I am the LORD; and there is none else."
      The Biblical Worldview says: The world was deliberately planned as a habitation of man.
      The Naturalistic Worldview says: Man is only an accidental by-product of an entirely purposeless process.
      Evolutionist George Gaylord Simpson said: "Man is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that did not have him in mind.
      On we here on purpose, or by accident?
      2 Corinthians 4:18 says: "While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal."
      * The Naturalistic Worldview says: The natural world is all there is.
      * The Biblical Worldview says: The natural world is only temporary.
      Psalm 146:5-6 says: "Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the LORD his God:
      Which made heaven, and earth, the sea, and all that therein is: which keepeth truth for ever:"
      * The Naturalistic Worldview says: All truth is relative. Truth is observed.
      * The Biblical Worldview says: Biblical truth is absolute. Truth is revealed.
      Naturalism has no ground upon which absolute morals can be based.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:11 pm |
    • Seth

      @cb can you use any evidence that has not been re-written more times then any other book in history, and has conflicting stories upon it on many areas. Please try and use something other then a "Holy Book" when speaking to an Atheist. Talking to one and using quotes from the bible will serve no purpose in the conversation and when you get that you will understand talking to one much better.

      So please give real evidence, or I will point to an older book and say awe ha it out dates yours there for its right.. fail!

      May 19, 2010 at 1:46 pm |
  20. HeyJoe

    The day we Americans stop caring about what our fellow Americans "believe" will be one of the greatest days in the history of this nation.

    "But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you."

    We don't "need" religious diversity on the SCOTUS, we need competence.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:09 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.