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. Cvilleman

    "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion". Can someone tell me where the words "seperation of church and state are in this"

    May 19, 2010 at 1:01 pm |
    • NCTerry

      You're right, I could not find it in there either.

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

      in a 1802 letter by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists, where Jefferson spoke of the combined effect of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment is where the phrase "separation of church and state" comes from. Was Jefferson a founding father? =P

      May 19, 2010 at 2:06 pm |
  2. Anna Nwa

    Any country that does not know God is dead. It is a pity! The founding fathers of this great nation were christians who used their religious and christian beliefs/background to build on what every American is enjoying today. America was founded on religious principles. People should not be so ignorant about it. One semester course in the history of America should have saved us from all the ungodly comments read on this page. When will Americans come to realise this simple fact, that the hands of the Almighty God rests heavily upon this nation.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:00 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      'When will Americans come to realise this simple fact, that the hands of the Almighty God rests heavily upon this nation.'
      Oh so so funny. So when were these hands resting on the US? During slavery? how about jim crow laws? Must have been ok to have those right because god was resting his hands on the US and making it strong.
      A simple fact huh? too too funny.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:07 pm |
    • Seth

      @ANA WNA – " The founding fathers of this great nation were christians " – Oh Gez here we go, someone else who has yet to really pick up a history book and read it regarding our founding fathers and the status at the time with the church of England when we broke away from England to create this nation. Please for the love of the flying spaghetti monster, or the pink invisible flying unicorn, or "insert deity here" please educate ur self!!

      May 19, 2010 at 2:04 pm |
  3. Josh

    I truely do not understand an Atheist’s logic. How can religious oaths, pledges and affirmations offend you if you think it’s all meaningless and a crock anyway? It is all meaningless, but not offensive, because Atheists don't believe. Aheists have the freedom to ignore it, not participate or not say it. How does it affect you or your life, if you believe it is worthless and stupid anyway? If it is rubbish ignore it; you have that liberty. If these religious based events bind some to adhere to country and law, why wouldn’t you encourage it and view it as a brainless but good thing for the lowly ignorant? It seems Atheist believe we are not created equal because believers need a stupid higher Authority to help guide and bind to law, while they can do it alone on intellect. Why and how does these believer choices upset you when you don’t believe, don’t have to participate and think it is all stupid anyway? I just don’t get it.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:00 pm |
  4. mattmchugh

    Hey "Stephen Prothero, CNN Belief Blog contributor" ... I want your job! What do I gotta do to get my categorically untenable musings ("Today many U.S. Catholics and Jews think like Protestants." Nice one!) on the feature spot of a major media site, rather than down here in the looney bin of comment posters. (Sorry, fellow commenters, but search your feelings and you know it to be true!)

    May 19, 2010 at 1:00 pm |
  5. LukaP

    As a pretty secular Jew I could not disagree more with the statement that "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. " I think MANY relatively non-observant Jews and Jewish not because of their faith or some deeply held beliefs, but because of culture and tradition i.e. because it's the identity they have (proudly) inherited.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:00 pm |
  6. Brian

    I cannot believe that this opinion article is "news". First of all, the writer appears to be Unitarian (many paths to 1 destination). Secondly, for our society to be indoctrinated in a belief by the media that people of different religions or ethnic backgrounds should or should not serve on the Supreme Court is hateful (it reminds me of the ethnic jokes that were told when I was a child). Thirdly, the Supreme Court justices do NOT WRITE the law, they INTERPRET the law. Therefore, religion SHOULD NOT impact their ability to interpret the law. I do not know whether people are qualified to be judges, but this opinion article does NOT lead any of its readers (you and me) to better understand whether this individual is qualified. It was a waste of my time!

    May 19, 2010 at 1:00 pm |
  7. I'mNowDumber...

    having read this article. I award you no points and may god have mercy on your soul.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:00 pm |
    • TsihCitnA

      Which god? Your god or mine?

      May 19, 2010 at 1:02 pm |
  8. Master

    We the Jews are your masters, don’t you know it by now, so shut up, go back to work, in order to pay your taxes into our treasury.

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


      May 19, 2010 at 1:02 pm |
  9. NCTerry

    It is funny how we get separated into a tone of different religions. As far as God has stated, there are only lost and saved (born again people indwelt with His Spirit).

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

      "as far as God has stated"???

      Did God state this to you directly? Or are you relying on some old book? And if so, why would you think the book contains actual quotes by God?

      There are ancient religious texts far older than the Bible, not to mention numerous mythologies that all claim to describe Creation and explain natural occurrences and the afterlife. If you're going to believe in any of them (which is a very questionable act in itself), why choose the Bible in particular?

      May 19, 2010 at 3:01 pm |
  10. Tom


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

      Tom. Turn your caps lock off. Surely you looked up and read what you wrote before you clicked "post".

      That said. I agree.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:01 pm |
    • BrianCNN

      Agnostic = types in all caps

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

      I LIKE CAPS....

      May 19, 2010 at 1:07 pm |
    • Jake

      Most agnostics are merely atheists without the courage to admit it.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:36 pm |
    • Gandi

      Most atheists (on these posts) are merely gay rights activists without the courage to admit it.

      May 19, 2010 at 2:04 pm |
    • Celeste

      Is it either or??? Gay Rights activist, agnostic, atheist....scrap it all, I’m a humanist and confident diversity in all branches of government will bring more balance to our country.

      May 19, 2010 at 2:18 pm |
  11. Cvilleman

    Did you know that there is no mention of the separation of church and state in the constitution/ Bill of rights. What it reads is "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion". The whole separation of church and state is something that is read into the bill of rights by judges over the years but not something that acctually exsits. There for all of this talk of seperation of church and state is truely in someways worthless. We do not have an official religion in the U.S., but we have a dominate judeo-christian background which is the basis of American Culture.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:57 pm |
  12. Celeste

    This post is extremely relevant! Bravo CNN; I am shocked by the number of comments indicating differently – this is the ‘melting pot’ after all and we are talking about the High Court – the final say! Why wouldn’t we want more diverse representation of the faiths (or lack thereof) in our country?? I think it is naive to imply a belief system (or lack thereof) would not affect the interpretation of the laws – the more diversity, the better. My belief is currently not represented within this group...not that every faith (or lack thereof) should /could be, however a bit more of a mix wouldn’t hurt.

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

      Yes, let's pick people based on affirmative action and quotas instead of actual qualifications for the highest court in the land.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:02 pm |
    • Celeste

      why would we think white, protestant, males can do the best job and understand the relevant perspectives of everyone??

      May 19, 2010 at 2:14 pm |
    • meh

      @Celeste As always – we get tripped up on words. Maybe our definitions of diverse are at odds –

      How can you possibly look at the current Supreme Court and say the it is (1) not diversified and (2) made up of all white male protestants.

      Are you kidding? We got it closer to right than before with women, african american and choices NOT based on their religion. If these justices were nominated on the basis of just religion, I doubt George Bush would choose a Catholic over someone of his specific faith. It is lucky our legal system is not soley based on religion – most of us would be dead based on our differing opinions. That is what makes America a great place – We all can have our opinions on religion, God and at the end we have a set of laws that clearly doesnt reflect our religious opinions. Most religious people dont believe in abortion or even the death penalty.

      I think in the end we should all be thankful that we live in a country that doesnt judge withs laws of religion only – I thought atheists believed in a moral code or some fundamental set of laws. We are human beings and a lot of law may have been initated as respect for our fellow man/woman. I dont know what your religious preference is – but just because I use the word religious doesnt assume someone believes in God. Geez then we are fighting over semantics...as if what we kill for isnt petty enough as it is. Maybe we can have the dictionary authorities create a word that describes a person neither by their race or religion...oh wait, we do – human beings.

      The whole thing is a circular argument and moves us no more forward. Then we wonder why it has taken thousands of years to get to where we are today.... imo. How the atheists believe that they are not represented is beyond me. We are all people and have certain rights within our USA. One of those being free speech. Thank God!! lol

      May 19, 2010 at 6:20 pm |
  13. al fisher

    I 'm amzed first we say make it more diverse(men women black hispanic) now make it more religious balance. Please give me back the good old days when it only mattered if they could do the JOB If we americans can only look at tags, color religion how can we tell the world what to do?

    May 19, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
  14. Megan

    My concern is less from a religious than a populist viewpoint. As a (liberal) Protestant, I could care less whether justices are Catholic or Jewish. As a native of Colorado, I'm somewhat concerned that Protestants tend to be more prevalent in the Midwest and Western states, the so-called "flyover" states. I've heard, with Kagan, there's now four New Yorkers. I'm not a Sarah Palin fan–I don't believe small-towns are the real America–but I am a little sensitive toward what appears to be East Coast elitism in selecting Supreme Court justices.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
    • TsihCitnA

      East Coast Elitism is not much different from religious elitism. It just depends on if you are part of the group or not.

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

      I think you're getting closer to the real issue here. It's not religion, it's social class. The headline should read "6 Catholics + 3 Jews = 9 Elitists."

      May 19, 2010 at 1:14 pm |
    • kryg

      RAF: Many of the justices came from economically poor backgrounds. So to say the supreme court is ELITIST is wrong.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:45 pm |
    • kryg

      Megan: Many Catholic and Jewish lawyers tend to dedicate themselves to public service while most Protestant lawyers are in law firms, businesses, profit-oriented ventures and politics. It so happened that many Catholics and Jews live in the Northeast. This is the reason why most of the current justices are from Northeast.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:53 pm |
  15. Reb Nachum of Bratslav

    Interesting how this article appears after a Jew is nominated to the court, but not after the 6th Catholic was appointed. I wonder if Stephen Prothero recognizes that his article represents yet another link in a long chain of anti-Semitic fear of Jewish political power.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
  16. Maryann - Orlando FL

    Well, Oscar, it bothers me that there's no atheist on the court, but I've come to terms with the fact that there is NO separation of church and state in America. It's a myth.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
  17. TsihCitnA

    As a peaceful, moral, tax paying non-theist, I have to also ask.... Where is the judge that will interpret the law well enough to meet my standards? I count zero at this point. It would be nice if some elected official had the decency to recognize that. I know I'm not the only one.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
  18. Mick

    I thought they were simply 9 Americans. Church affiliation should not be the issue.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
  19. Jimbo

    Stephen Prothero,

    I think you should be assigned to another section other than religion cuz you have no clue what your talking about. Does your mama know what a fool you are? I suspect she does!

    May 19, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
    • pb

      I think you miss the whole point of the guy's article. He is saying in matters of law, American Catholics and Protestants and Jews are not that differerent. Some are conservative;some are liberal, but has nothing to do with their overall religious practice or belief.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
  20. Jeorme

    Keep in mind that these nine are going to be playing GOD and you and I both know that is imposible. Have a good day.

    May 19, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
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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.