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. coco

    O yah, why not atheists who really think straight and don't believe in fairy tails like aaaa...o ya Evolution -that's a worst case fairy tail, so never mind... (Atheists are the only ones that perceive themselves well writen and smart o ya and "open-minded" – you know... Eveybody else away from their small little group are considered unducated and closed mind just bacause they do not believing in their fairy tail – evolution)
    This country will be really doomed... look at Russia

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

      Good post!

      May 19, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
  2. Oscar

    What a joke. You dismiss the religious differences between Catholics and Protestants with such alacrity, but with no evidence. Oh well, never let the truth unsettle a clever argument. Having lumped all Christians together, you then make the astounding leap of lumping most Jews in with Protestants, as well. Never mind that the religious tradition of the Jews resembles nothing at all the religious tradition of either Catholics and Protestants. Never mind that Catholics and Protestants have bickered amongst themselves for a thousand years and many Protestants still consider Catholicism a sort of cult. Never mind that Christians have persecuted Jews for over a thousand years, and that many Christians still hold anti-Semitic thoughts. Why bother with minor details when you can dismiss all religious differences amongst Jews, Protestants and Catholics so breezily? Despite your protestations to the contrary, religious and cultural differences do exist amongst Christians and between Christians and Jews. Protestants make up a large part of this nation (over 50%), and played and even larger role in founding our great country. That they are excluded from the highest regions of jurisprudence presents a problem of legitimacy for the Supreme Court. Jews, on the other hand, make up less than 2% of the population, and will comprise 33% of the Supreme Court after Kagan's enthronement. Catholics are similarly over-represented, at the expense of Protestants.

    By the way, I'm a Catholic, and it bothers me to see NO Protestants on the court.

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

      Sorry, no Protestants qualified. Maybe next selection time. Most Protestant lawyers are in law firms, business corporations, profit-oriented ventures. There are more Catholic and Jewish lawyers in public service.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:41 pm |
  3. Maryann - Orlando FL

    Can anyone here even imagine that an Atheist Judicial Nominee would ever be confirmed by Congress???

    Never happen. They can't risk not being re-elected.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
  4. Kory

    Who the hell cares what religion these people are?

    May 19, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
  5. Rachel

    Can we get a couple agnostics/atheists on there too? Will I ever see the day that it's "okay" to not belong to an organized religion?

    May 19, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
    • BrianCNN

      Maybe one day they'll find someone who is qualified for the job. Shouldn't that be what actually matters?

      May 19, 2010 at 1:27 pm |
  6. Spike80

    Obviously this religious "scholar" does not even know what the basic tenet is that Protestants or Christians believe: that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior. And Protestants do not believe in the Papal system, like Catholics. Before he tries his math, maybe he should remember what the basics of each religion.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:49 pm |
  7. Protestant

    The Catholics I know (and some are part of my family) do NOT think like protestants. Granted I don't know any of the extreme protestants sects but all my Catholic acquaintances are much more "fundamentalist" than my protestant church and friends... with very different beliefs on birth control, stem cell research, etc than much of the American population

    May 19, 2010 at 12:49 pm |
    • kryg

      Really? Most Protestants I know think they are the only ones who will be saved, and Catholics and Jews are all going to hell. Most Protestants I know are narrow-minded, racists, and believe that that King James Version of Bible is the only came directly from God.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
  8. MEXI

    WHAAAAAAAAAAAAT .......... No Southern Baptists on the big bench ?
    My, My, My ..... What's this good ol' country gonna come to ?

    May 19, 2010 at 12:49 pm |
  9. Frank Sellers

    Why not an atheist?

    May 19, 2010 at 12:48 pm |
  10. Charles

    This guy is clueless. He throws a couple of Jewish and Catholic theologians out there and pretends he understands both communities. After reading this, I believe he understands neither, nor protestantism for that matter. Get another religious writer. This guy is out to lunch.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
  11. donJuan

    The only individuals I want on my SC are atheists. Aren't they embarrassed to believe in a god? The whole notion is antiquated to say the least, nevermind dangerous..

    May 19, 2010 at 12:45 pm |
  12. Preacher's Kid

    Since when is an Episcopalian (Souter) lumped-in with the Catholics?

    May 19, 2010 at 12:45 pm |
    • Jimbo

      Everyone knows that eopiscopals are just watered down Catholics.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:57 pm |
    • RAFritz

      Souter retired months ago.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:17 pm |
  13. Andre

    Jews don't think like Protestants. Jews are much more pro mass immigration and open borders than Catholics and Protestants. Jews are also much more pro-Zionist.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:44 pm |
  14. Intelligent Catholic

    What is all the fuss over the Justices religious views? We have a seperation of Church and State, but that is not going to stop anyone from ruling based on their religious views (if there is the slightest bit of ambiguity in the law). For everyone who is ranting about the need for ahiests to "protect the seperation of Church and State," should we strick down all laws that stem from any religious beliefe? If I belive it is wrong to kill someone because of my religious views, is it than wrong to make murder illegal because "it is a violation of Church and State." The professed religon of the Justices doesn't matter; if there is the slightest ambiguity in the law, than the Justices will rule based on their personal belifes, however they gained those belifes.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:44 pm |
  15. Carleton

    I agree with, "What is the point of this article?" How can you make a sweeping statement like, "Catholics and Jews think like Protestants"? What does that even mean?

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

      I agree with your point here. I was actually offended by the author's statement. I mean, imagine me as a Catholic being rolled in with Protestants!

      May 19, 2010 at 12:48 pm |
  16. Andriani

    What about Orthodox christians.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:42 pm |
  17. Untenured.

    The notion that Maimonedes isn't the source of individual religion is at odds with my view of history. It seems to me that Spinoza's world view was built on Rambam's legacy. Beyond that, Rambam's general legacy has been to make the Talmud more approachable so all could study it, giving those who wish the opportunity to create their own understanding of the oral law. This is the first step and only necessary step away from religious indoctrination. At the end of the argument, people either think or they don't; Rambam enabled everybody to think if they wanted and freed everybody from religious indoctrination.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:42 pm |
  18. Darius

    If we're talking diversity I definitely think an atheist or non-religious person needs to be at least one of the nine. After all, there are more people in this country that are non-religious than there are jews. This guy wants to put an evangelical on the supreme court?...what an idiot.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:40 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 12:52 pm |
  19. Michael

    I guess that explains why Congress gets it wrong all the time, they represent a disjointed religious view?! There should continue to be a Separation of church and State as long as we agree that an individual's religious upbringing impacts their behavior and decisions, even Atheists. Perhaps we should start thinking of America as a Unitarian Universalist nation. UU churches are a mix of "reformed" Catholics, Baptists and Jews, a ton of Protestants, a few Muslims, and even a handful of Atheists. It's a mix of gays and straights, blacks, whites, yellows, and browns, men and women, old and young, singles and families, etc., usually in proportion to the national mix. They all believe differently but come together under a common roof, usually the stronger for their diversity.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:40 pm |
  20. Tina

    Someone earlier (I forget who) said that atheists and most major world religions have one thing in common: They tend to judge, pity, or look down on all those who do not believe as they do.

    So...there's my philosophical food for thought for the day. I now hope the judges are all secretly agnostic!

    May 19, 2010 at 12:40 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.