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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. ARDEN PORTAKAL

    If we are taking and choosing roots like a religious, then every religion has to represent in Supreme Court, actually only religion has a mercy, that is Real Christianity exactly way of Jesus but non of others, Jews, Muslims they are not, they both have punishments, one softer but other even cut hands (!) . And very important if they call them-self, i am a Jew in justice or i am a Muslim or Christian, defiantly they will involve to make their decision, maybe has to be chosen non religious Judges.Otherwise, I prefer Christians.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:40 pm |
  2. Jon

    The scientific method is fantastic. Science, on the other hand, has been wrong throughout human history more often than it has been right. Things that were "truth" for years, decades, centuries and millenia even, have been proven to be wrong. And not just a little wrong. All kinds of wrong. There is absolutely faith involved in science, something I've become quite comfortable with over the years. You have to believe you have found the answer, and you have to be willing to debate those who think otherwise, and you have to be willing to admit when you are wrong. By calling those who are religious stupid, you place yourself alongside those wonderful close-minded scientists that brought us such theories as the moon being buried in dust or all planets being similar in construction to our own, both of which were proven horribly wrong. It also puts them in the same camp as those who believe their religion is THE answer to everything and that all others are wrong.

    The scientific method acknowledges its own inherent problems, which, in my opinion, is what makes it great. The scientific method acknowledges that it may not have all the facts and could be proven wrong at any point. Eliminating any possibility, including all beliefs in world religions, goes against the very principle you cling to as an atheist. Telling me or anyone else that God doesn't exist is exactly the same thing as someone telling me or you Jesus is the only answer. It is arrogant. And arrogance has no place in the realm of science, a subject that humbles, on a daily basis, the very students who study it so carefully.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:38 pm |
  3. Stan

    Soda Bob Curtis is exactly right; most atheists I've met are as fundamentalist and intolerant as evangelicals. The same can not be said of most agnostics I've met.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:37 pm |
  4. Fariba

    There are five major world religions, all of which are well represented in our country's population. I will be impressed the day that each of those religions as well as the "nonbelievers" have one representative on our highest court...Until that day, the math will not add up.

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

      I don't think that you will see non-believers on the court any time soon. The main reason is that, I think that many people have a concern deep down about someone who boasts that they don't need anything or anyone other than themselves in order to determine what is right from wrong. I think most people aren't comfortable with that....We all know what we, as individuals and as a race, are capable of, and if someone does not seek or look to something higher than themselves for their morals or their concept of right and wrong, then they are wholly subject only to what 'man' thinks...."...the heart [of a man] is deceitfully wicked...who can know it?"

      May 19, 2010 at 2:03 pm |
    • Howie

      I would much rather people look within themselves to determine right and wrong than blindly (like sheep) follow the dictates of some hermit who died 2000 years ago. I'm pretty sure that things like honor killings and cutting off the hands of bread thieves would not have become common practice if every individual made an personal value judgement about them. It is only the assumed authority of the religious leader that allows these type of atrocities to occur & continue.

      May 19, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
  5. nos

    -Simplistic labeling is the cause for the simplistic worries. Atheists were ignored in this article for the same reason minorities are usually ignored. However, labeling the justices by their religious beliefs assumes a total devotion to a lack of objectivity. It seems highly likely to me that most of these judges, most of the time, think atheistically (read: "objectively"). Most people I know are at least a little atheistic (objective, to be more precise) so I'm not concerned.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:36 pm |
  6. DKcart

    I think the massive number of absolutely vitrolic comments on this board coming from Athiests who think that only their worldview is correct exemplifies why being an Athiest does not make anyone less dogmatic or bigoted.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:34 pm |
    • Howie

      Nope, just more 'correct', or 'accurate'.

      May 19, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
  7. Mat

    I am reading many saying the separation of the church and the state. Does it mean that any one who believes in GOD should never hold public office? If my faith makes me belief in well being of man, peace with all does it make me less. Atheists crow about fairy tales. You are questioning my faith and making fun of it. If you dont believe, its your choice. Every body talks about Jefferson as diest. Jefferson alone did not fight for american independence. There were thousands of christians who fought for it are they less than Jefferson? Dont clutch one straw to de generate christianity. Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. Take the Roman empire as the first example.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:33 pm |
    • meh

      @Mat – you are my hero.... 🙂 no really.

      May 19, 2010 at 6:31 pm |
  8. YCai

    I came from a Communist country and I love America because I can worship the God of New Testament here. If you put two Sunni Muslims, two Shiite Muslims and three Jews as Justices in Supreme Court, you will have a Middle East in US. If you put three Maoists and three atheists in the Supreme Court, I bet United States will behave like China. I suggest we need to put down an Amendment that Supreme Court cannot have less than five mainline Protestants as the sitting justices.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:32 pm |
  9. houstongal

    This country is so f'd up. Religion has NO place on supreme court or politics. The last President said God talked to him and we all know how well that went. Where is Atheist on Supreme Court? Religion is bs.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:29 pm |
    • Howie

      Right On!

      May 19, 2010 at 3:22 pm |
  10. davec

    I find it interesting that we have no Protestants on the Supreme Court yet congress is 55% Protestant. I wonder why this is?

    I would like to see an Agnostic or an Atheist on the supreme court, in congress, or in the white house. That we do not means what? That an agnostic or an atheist cannot be elected to high office? That agnostics and atheists do not aim for high office?

    May 19, 2010 at 1:23 pm |
    • Biff

      sadly, it will never happen. ironic that in a nation founded in part upon freedom of religion, you'd be better off running for office as a devotee of a faith hated by most of our citizenry (Muslim) than as a devotee of no faith at all. sadly, this also serves as a de facto IQ filter on the road to higher office.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:29 pm |
  11. Gern

    Excuse me please. Could someone point out the Separation Of Church and State law to me. Which US title and code is that again. Or maybe just a quick reference to it in the constitution. Oh.. I'm sorry you can't because its not there. My bad.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
  12. Kathy L.

    Listen to some of you talking about fearing the devil. lol. There is no such thing, it's all in your head. It's call ignorance.
    My goodness, so funny. Separation of church & state stands firm.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
    • Gern

      Wow biased and hateful. How attractive you are.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:23 pm |
    • Howie

      What's hateful about reality?

      May 19, 2010 at 3:24 pm |
  13. Dick

    Mr. Prothero makes some interesting points and as a general matter what he states may have some validity. But the important issue is not how broad, generic concepts of how in the 21st century Catholics and Jews in America may think and act in the broadest sense like Protestants in America. But rather how the religions of the current members of the Court specifically mpact or affect their respective decision-making. From this vantage point, in my opinion, the strong conservative Catholic beliefs of the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia, Alito, and Thomas do not fit into this "melting pot" concept of Mr. Prothero; rather, the very conservative views of these four Justices are NOT in the mainstream of American thinking and are extremely dangerous to the traditional life view of most Americans who think of themselves as non-doctrinaire Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. These Justices' conservative Catholic beliefs must and do have a strong impact on them. America will greatly suffer for many years because of this unfortunate current make-up of the Court!

    May 19, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
  14. Byrd

    Maybe what we're really seeing is illustrative of exactly who the two ruling powers are in this country: Catholicism on the one hand and Judaism on the other, both vying for fundamentalist religious and economic supremacy. The Protestants, collectively, just scare the living beejezzus out of everyone with the same fundamentalist, intolerant rhetoric that got their philosophical descendents thrown out of Europe in the first place. Roberts is a good example of the wisdom of the earlier Europeans. How sad that those on the Court who do still appreciate concepts like empathy and logic are subjected to the Machiavellian, Scalian defenses of the indefensible, believing perhaps that fat around the waist and between the ears lends false weight to their baseless arguments, contrary and offensive to all sensible and rational.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
  15. poulose

    If anyone think this make up of 3 Jews and 6 Catholics is an accident is a fool. Most of the Catholics are chosen because of the abortion issue, the Jews are chosen because of their political and economic clout in this country

    May 19, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
  16. Herb Rosenbaum

    Fact check, Mr. Prothero: Though the Kagans eventually joined the Reconstuctionists, Ms. Kagan's Bat Mitzvah took place in the Orthodox Lincoln Center Synagogue on a Friday night, in a compromise struck with Rabbi Riskin. He still resides in Israel. The "Shuls" are across the street from each other.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
  17. lex

    Its not 9 protestants, its 9 ivy league grads, a bunch of elitists who think thay are indeed different than the rest of us. That's why th3ey went ivy.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
  18. Barry

    Here we go again. If the media can't play the race card, they play the religion card. All hype and sensationalism, no content. Sigh.................

    May 19, 2010 at 1:18 pm |
  19. trinity

    how about 3 religious (pick your religions), 3 non-religious (atheists) and 3 indifferent (agnostics?). Sounds fair to me.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:16 pm |
  20. Kurt

    I'm all for affirmative action on the supreme court.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:14 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.