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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. TheTruth

    Look at all you people. It is disgusting and repulsive to see that a country such as the UNITED States of America is trying to bite each other's head off because of religious clauses. Think about it, even if you do or don't believe in Jesus, he said that a house divided against itself cannot stand. With all due respect to every and any belief or disbelief inside this discussion, we have to put our religious differences aside and think not only about the damages that we are doing to ourselves, but also our future generations. Being a "Protestant" as some of you might refer to, has a deeper meaning than the word itself. The nation is clouded by so much ignorance and dislike of certain religions because of certain people that make mistakes (big mistakes sometimes) and other religions and faiths or whatever you might call it decide to bite off other people's heads. Like Jesus said, if anyone has no sins, cast the first stone. As many of you can already relate, yes, I am a Christian. And unlike other Chrisitians, my job is to do what Christ commands, which is to love one another as I love myself. So instead of bickering at each other because of this DRUG called religion, why don't we practice what our country stands for and truthfully become the UNITED States of America?

    May 19, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
  2. Mike Hott

    See how fast Christians embrace "Separation of Church and State" when we have 9 MUSLIMS on the Supreme Court.. he he he

    May 19, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
  3. Michael

    We need more variety here. When are we going to see a Wiccan superior court judge, or a Hindu, or a native American shaman, or another faith other than a Judeo Christian on the bench when there are such people among the population, even if a minority faith? Why is declaration of any faith affiliation a consideration or reported for those sitting on the superior court bench?

    May 19, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
  4. Nico

    Why not an asian, black, or latino? There's already two Jewish judges. Jews only make up about 2.2% of the population.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:33 pm |
    • Preacher's Kid

      Maybe, check, and check.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
    • BrianCNN

      Enough with the affirmative action! Why don't we just judge the potential judges on their merits and not make special considerations for special interest groups?

      May 19, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
    • BrianCNN

      ...and by the way, this article was about religious preferences of the Supreme Court justices and not their races or ethnic backgrounds.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
  5. Corey Tapper, NY

    The author of this article states that Catholics and Jews largely think like Protestants. Let's get history correct though. Both Judaism and Catholicism outdate Protestantism by many centuries, and even several millenia. So, I would argue that if our thinking processes are similar, it is the Protestants who think like Catholics and Jews, not the other way around.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:33 pm |
  6. Aradan

    US Constituion – Article VI, section 3:

    " no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

    May 19, 2010 at 12:33 pm |
  7. Richard

    I wish that as a society we could see the Supreme Court in a more rational and humanist light rather than concering ourselves with the religious make up of the court. I understand the religion, and the morals and ethics that are attached to its teaching help to inform those justices and shape their own lives, but I would hope that more broad and societal concerns would be at the forefront of their decision making. I hope for a court that is more instructive than reflective in its decision making.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:32 pm |
    • Zach

      A coherent, well thought-out comment?

      This doesn't belong on CNN at all...

      May 19, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
  8. Zach

    Wait a second... Real research, good writing, no grammatical errors...

    This doesn't belong on CNN at all.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
    • KKK

      A stupid, pointless comment? This doesn't belong anywhere.

      May 20, 2010 at 6:27 pm |
  9. Josh

    This is what I dont understand about an Athiest logic. If an Athiest does not believe in a God and thinks that religion is meaningless, why do they care that others do and use religion to give meaning and direction to a life? How are religious oaths, pledges and affirmations an insult to non-believers if Athiest believe it is all meaningless anyway? I don't understand the thought process. If you don't believe don't say the religious oaths, pledges and affirmations, you have the freedom to not do so, right? What gives you right to get upset when seeing religious display or hearing oaths if you believe it is all a crock anyway? These theffect your life, because you believe we are saying something meaningless anyway.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
    • Luke

      Josh = Wow? Seriously? Well, it is because Christian ideals infect the minds of politicians and law makers, impacting my life. In other words, dogma and meaningless supernatural nonsense becomes concrete law and impacts the culture of society. Furthermore, humans such as George Bush, who is a very religious Christian, change the course of the world as we know it based upon his Christian calling. If you can't see how religion impact culture and society, you aren't worth debating.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
    • Jack

      Athiests care, because believing something on faith is what you do as a child, because you don't have the time to form your own opinions and figure out the consequences of your actions on your own, so you must take a parent's advice on faith. As you get older you are able to form your own opinions, questions, and do your own research to validate them. However, religion provides a box that prevents you from thinking critically, as you are taught to halk anything you don't know up to faith. It's a dangerous precident to set, and stunts the intellectual growth of a person, bringing such joys as the Dark Ages and the Spanish Inquisition. Those are just byproducts of believing something on faith and not using critical thinking.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:42 pm |
  10. Dove

    Funny, I didn't know what religion you were had to do with what type of Bribes you accepted. These judges are a joke. Or should I say banker / captain? SEPARATION FROM CHURCH AND STATE. END OF STORY! Pathetic.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:30 pm |
  11. Larry

    Well, since Protestants are actually in the majority in our society, those who claim that the court should represent the American demographic should be demanding at least one actual Protestant on the Supreme Court. You can twist things around to say that Catholics and Jews are pretty much the same as a Protestants, but would you accept the argument that Democart man is the same as a woman, merely because he share's the same sensibilities?

    May 19, 2010 at 12:30 pm |
  12. Kirt

    There shouldn't be any room for religion on the supreme court. How can you put someone who irrationally believes things on faith and not evidence, in a position where you must use evidence and not faith to make binding decisions? It's embarassing.

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

      Because most well rounded and educated people can make the distinction between the two. Having a religion does not mean that all of your decisions in life are based upon it. I'm a Christian but I make business decisions everyday at work. These decisions are completely independent of my religion.

      I think it would be just as embarrasing to appoint judges that are so close minded to think that only someone with no religious beliefs is intelligent enough to be on the Court. Yes – let's appoint close minded, narrow thinking individuals to decide major cases.

      The religion or nonreligion of a Supreme Court Justice is just as meaningless as their sexual orientation. Neither should play a part in their (1) getting appointed and (2) how they decide the case in front of them.

      To argue otherwise would be to discriminate against those who are otherwise capable of the job but due to having a religious belief cannot be appointed.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:16 pm |
  13. TheRadicalLiberal

    I'd be much happier if there were 9 atheists on the court. Or even 1. Perhaps there are though – these are hightly educated people and highly educated people tend to be atheists. Let us hope at least a few of them are closet atheists.

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

      ...on the other hand, the 5 conservate judges who routinely vote in favour of corporations and against the best interests of the American people (apart from being activist judges) could not possibly be Christians as Jesus was all about the ordinary man not the rich and the powerful.

      Joking. Of course they are Christians. Christians today tend to be the very opposite of what Jesus represented.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:32 pm |
    • kryg

      In reality though the best educated ones are those with religion and not atheists. Catholicism and Judaism gave the current justices the "tools" to be the best justices.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:26 pm |
  14. Ramos

    At the end of the day atheists are reduced to being in the exact same place as their theist brethren, holding a belief which they cannot prove. Yes negatives are proven in science and mathematics on a daily basis. Sine waves are routinely viewed on oscilloscopes going from positive passing through zero and into negative territory as only one example. However, we are unbder tyranny of the minority when the SCOTUS is held by practicioners of only two faiths representing <25% of the population in general, not to mention only graduartes of the Ivy Leaguie need apply.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:28 pm |
    • Zeke2112

      Typical flawed thinking of the atheist position. The default state for any belief is that the object of belief does not exist. If I say I believe in Zygghulk, a half-neutron, half-amoeba creator of the Universe, and you cannot disprove his existence, are you suddenly a non-Zygghulk believer? Why should you have to disprove the existence of everything some nutjob claims to exist?

      If atheists believe anything, it is that faith in a God who created the world and influences its populace is a human invention designed to cope with a mortal existence. This is actually pretty easy to prove with historical records, study of less developed cultures, and psychological analysis.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
  15. Richard

    I would be more interested in their socio-economic backgrounds.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:28 pm |
  16. Rlg

    What's next? Counting gray hairs !

    May 19, 2010 at 12:28 pm |
  17. Jessica

    Why not have ALL atheists on the court? Why bring someone in at all who might let religious dogma color his opinions on the law? If we're going to uphold the separation of church and state, then let's SEPARATE it. What better way than a totally secular court?

    May 19, 2010 at 12:28 pm |
    • BrianCNN

      If there's one thing worse than a religious whack-job it's an atheist whack-job. Okay, maybe they're not worse, but they're just as bad. A whack job is a whack job.

      Bottom line: religious stance of justices is not relevant. If it impairs their ability to do their jobs, then they should not hold that office–and this includes atheists who are just as prone as any religious person to be caught up in the zeal of their individual preferences.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:45 pm |
  18. TheTruth

    Look at all you people. It is disgusting and repulsive to see that a country such as the UNITED States of America is trying to bite each other's head off because of religious clauses. Think about it, even if you do or don't believe in Jesus, he said that a house divided against itself cannot stand. With all due respect to every and any belief or disbelief inside this discussion, we have to put our religious differences aside and think not only about the damages that we are doing to ourselves, but also our future generations. Being a "Protestant" as some of you might refer to, has a deeper meaning than the word itself. The nation is clouded by so much ignorance and dislike of certain religions because of certain people that make mistakes (big mistakes sometimes) and other religions and faiths or whatever you might call it decide to bite off other people's heads. Like Jesus said, if anyone has no sins, cast the first stone. As many of you can already relate, yes, I am a Christian. And unlike other Chrisitians, my job is to do what Christ commands, which is to love one another as I love myself. So instead of bickering at each other because of this DRUG called religion, why don't we practice what our country stands for and truthfully become the UNITED States of America?

    May 19, 2010 at 12:27 pm |
  19. Zeke2112

    That any of our justices would be influenced by any religion should be terrifying to anyone who values freedom.

    “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” – Denis Diderot

    May 19, 2010 at 12:27 pm |
    • kryg

      I don't think the justices are influenced by their religion in a bad way. I believe Catholicism and Judaism have given these justices "tools" to be the best judges who can make fair decisions and promote justice for the common good.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:22 pm |
  20. Michael

    This entire article and it's premise are nothing but a fine display of hypocrisy and rhetoric.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:25 pm |
    • Mark C

      You're a fine display of someone who has absolutely nothing intelligent to say.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:28 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.