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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. Michael H.

    Even when you look at post-revivalism of 1980s South Korea, you see how Buddhism has gone through a transformation to look like another replica of Protestantism. They have "church-like" temples, with Korean Christianitinesque daily morning prayer sessions, even Korean Christianitinesque Buddhist hymnals are flourishing there in South Korea. How they perceive their own faith is becoming very similar to how Christians view their faith.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:13 pm |
  2. steveinkc

    And where are the rastafarians might I ask?

    May 19, 2010 at 1:12 pm |
  3. Garyd

    Responsible judges do not allow their personal religious beliefs to influence their interpretation and application of the law.They apply the law as it is written and that is their obligation. If the premise is that all judges decisions are driven by their religious beliefs then there would be no objective judicial judgements. It would become very clear or obvious if a judge would rule on his/her personal religious beliefs rather then on the law. Such a judge should be disbarred.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:11 pm |
  4. Cameron Thorp

    Great insight. As a former protestant (missionary) I am amazed at how much the protestant ethos permeates American culture. I have been Greek Orthodox for 13 years and still find myself reverting to my Protestant mindset. I am looking forward to reading your books. I grew up in the church yet did not have any clue what the Orthodox Church was! Understanding where your (real)beliefs come from is the first step in evaluating what you believe.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:11 pm |
  5. BillyBob

    An earlier comment stated most morals come from religion, but actually that is backwards. Most religions have incorporated eithics. The issue I have with that is that religions tie the ethics to the hocus pocus that religion requires one to believe in - rightly or wrongly as I certainly don't have the answers. The result for many is that the ethics are called into question as one questions the aspects of the religion that require faith. In fact, the ethics are necessary for a society to exist and prosper and have very little, if anything to do with the faith requirements of a religion.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:11 pm |
  6. john mercado

    and a are the we stop run

    May 19, 2010 at 1:08 pm |
  7. Darren Prothero

    I am from England and very proud to be protestant im not sure whats going on but it sounds like protestant is not known about that much in America I know only a little myself but im still proud is it not popular anymore ...? Stephan if your my relative send me a e-mail and i will give you my number best regards Darren Prothero Californa

    May 19, 2010 at 1:08 pm |
  8. Cvilleman

    Great point beth

    May 19, 2010 at 1:08 pm |
  9. Willyboy

    Religion is irrelevant to the Courts – or it should be. Our laws are secular, so the courts should be. I personally don't care what a justice's religion is so long as it does not interfere with or outright drive their judicial duties. All that said, if we want to reflect our national make up, we need more agnostics and atheists on the courts.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:07 pm |
  10. tony

    Wouldn't it be nice if the court were truly representative of our society? I don't see a gay person, Athiest, Muslim, Hindu or Asian on the court... Also there needs to be more women. Our country is a melting pot and the court needs to reflect somone other than fat, old, religious white men.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:07 pm |
  11. Iyov

    The mix of people is really no big deal. I think people are over reacting.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:07 pm |
  12. Michael Morris

    Militant Atheists like Mr. Prothero will not rest until all religion is eradicated from the fast of the world. Their intent is clear, no need to mince words. After reading the USA Today article Monday that was the impression I walked away with.

    Atheists need to learn that 0 is a number and has a value. Belief that the number of deities of the universe is 0 is a belief the government cannot try to enforce any more than any other – cries of the Militant Atheists to the contrary.

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

      The reason some atheists want religion eradicated is because organized religion is the reason for pretty much every major conflict in history.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
  13. AnonObserver

    There is essentially zero correlation between Supreme Court justices, who interpret application of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and their personal religious beliefs. To inject a litmus test into the process of member selection is absurd. It is unlikely that a single case can be found in the entire history of the Supreme Court where the justices all sided with a major or minority decision on purely religious grounds – even when they were all of the same or similar beliefs.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:06 pm |
  14. Beth Boyle

    Atheism is a religion of sorts too. As no one can prove there is no God or that the universe came into being with no creator at the helm of creation it is pure conjecture to say you know there is no God.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:05 pm |
    • Jason

      Exactly...just as it is pure conjecture to think you know what God has said, the rules he's laid out, and to punish those who don't believe or follow them. We don't know what waits for us after life, but I'm certain it's nothing to do with any of the religions of the world.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:08 pm |
  15. Jason

    I hope that the people ruling on the law of the land believe in just that, the law of the land...and not myths created by men who were afraid of thunder, lightning, the dark, and the unknown...and then created religion to make themselves feel better.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:05 pm |
  16. Mike

    Look, folks, the point of this article is this. People's choices are influenced by their experiences, and religion is, for a great many people, a substantial part of their experiences. He argues that the religions of SCOTUS members do not provide substantial variation in those experience, and so they are likely to think in a not very diverse fashion, at least inasmuch as religion influences their thinking. So, why not increase diversity along this dimension? We talk about racial/ethnic/gender diversity, but why not religious diversity as well, especially because we emphasize the separation of church and state?

    May 19, 2010 at 1:04 pm |
    • Common Sense

      Hear, hear...

      May 19, 2010 at 1:36 pm |
  17. brian

    i think jews are trying to sneak there way into power but Christians Catholics are the biggest power on earth and will always be so all the jews muslims etc.. i think our leaders should open there eyes and see how sneaky these jews are there buying there self in to power.

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

      That sounds familiar...blame the jews...where have I heard that one before? Oh yeah, Germany 1939.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:06 pm |
    • Ally

      Why is it that the most hateful people can never spell or use proper grammar?

      Did your mommy not hug you as a child?

      May 19, 2010 at 3:37 pm |
    • Sand

      Brian, where did you learn English?

      May 20, 2010 at 6:31 pm |
  18. NCTerry

    One of the devils greatest deceptions was to get people to believe he doesn't exist and that therefore God doesn't exist either. Just look around, man is without excuse. This didn't just all happen by itself. It takes more faith to be an unbeliver than a believer.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:02 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      'It takes more faith to be an unbeliver than a believer.'
      No its doesnt, dont be silly.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:04 pm |
  19. Protestant who appreciates nuance in religious belief

    Wouldn't it be better to say "Americanized" rather than "Protestantized?" Isn't individualism as an ideal a very distinctively American trait left over from the Enlightenment, and yes, the Protestant Reformation? While I'm sure the author has done his homework on religions, his blog post nevertheless paints a caricature of religious perspective that is not helpful. While I found the math quaint and funny, it does not promote productive conversation as many of these comments can attest.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:01 pm |
  20. redneckbluedog

    You are so right. They need to get rid of Alito, Scalia, and Roberts, and replace them with 3 Protestants...say maybe Denise Majette of GA, Harold Ford, Jr. of TN, and Jim Cooper of TN or Roy Barnes of GA.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:01 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.