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. Kevin

    Why is every person here assuming it's a religious thing at all?

    Mr. Obama is a POLITICIAN. As are all Presidents. Appoint an atheist or muslim or hindu to the highest court in the land?

    Are you kidding me? What President in his (or her) right mind would find THAT option politically expedient? More like political suicide. When ANY of those denominations becomes the majority – THEN ask for them to be on the court. Until then, Mr. Atheist, asking for one of you to be on the Supreme Court truly is living in a fantasy land.

    May 20, 2010 at 7:22 am |
    • Luke

      Well, that's just a dumb logic I'm sorry to say. Jews have a similar representation to atheists as a percent of population in the US, but it is clearly not political suicide to appoint a Jew to the high court, no? The real problem is that the religious unwarrantedly believe atheists are Satan worshiping evil doers with horns and a tail. It's just not the case. An overwhelming proportion of atheists are people dedicated to thought, reason, the arts and composed of many predominate scientists.

      May 20, 2010 at 8:02 am |
  2. George

    Protestants founded this great country, and now can't even garner a seat on the Supreme Court. Religion should not have a place in deciding a Supreme Court Justice, but religion must be a factor because we are having this discussion, and it is apparent that no protestants have been selected as candidates. This attempt at political correctness and promotion of one group over another is bad for the USA. Remember the root word for diversity is divide, and divided we are. As the U.S. rewrites history with a political slant we are becoming a third class nation. We have lost our bearing.

    May 20, 2010 at 6:01 am |
    • bth

      George, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin were not protestants, now John Adams was. You are makeup history.

      May 20, 2010 at 7:18 am |
    • Don

      George is right and bth is wrong. All those "non protestants" went to Anglican churches, except for Ben, who was a Quaker. Sheesh.

      May 20, 2010 at 7:35 am |
    • Julie in Austin

      They went to Anglican churches because the Church of England was the state religion. Most were Deists of some sort, others Unitarian Christians.

      That the United States is NOT a Christian nation is codified in the Treaty of Tripoli which states "Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."

      May 21, 2010 at 8:43 am |
  3. Arya A.

    This article seems to be little more than a veiled apology for the author's prior delineation between Protestants, Jews, and Catholics. To believe that Jew=Protestant and Protestant=Catholic is to ignore the existence of religion and morality as cornerstones for justice in our society.

    CNN should hire bloggers who aren't bashful enough to renounce their own opinions.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:11 am |
  4. Doug in South Carolina

    In my opinion, religious affiliation of a judge, including members of the United States Supreme Court, should make no difference in determining qualifications to serve on the bench. In our deliberately secular justice system, one's religion should not matter, whether we are considering a litigant and a criminal defendant, or the attorney and the judge. I am a practicing attorney. Like nearly every attorney in the United States, I did not attend Harvard or Yale law school. For nearly thirty years I have represented hundreds of normal, regular people of nearly every socio-economic status and guided them through scores of legal problems and disputes. By no means am I special or unique; the vast majority of lawyers in this country can make the same claims of service at the Bar. Yet no one on the Supreme Court - not a single Justice - has my professional experience. Most Justices follow a certain track: they graduate from among a handful of law schools; after a few years of practicing law (if any), or working as a law professor, they are elected to the federal bench and eventually the Supreme Court. Merely attending Harvard or Yale does not make a better attorney, and is not indicative of superior legal knowledge or insight. Practicing corporate law or briefly working as a prosecutor or lecturing law classes for a few years is not necessarily the best preparation for the bench. The diversity we need on the Supreme Court is not religious. Instead, the diversity that would give us a better Supreme Court is professional legal experience. Moreover, when all justices are graduates of only two or three law schools, the specter of elitism taints the Court's work and creates at least the appearance that the Court is out of touch with the average American and his or her legal problems. Thus, the goal should be to expand the diversity of the Justices' legal education outside of Harvard and Yale, and of the Justices' prior work experience. The cause of justice and the rule of law would be enhanced accordingly, in the opinion of this simple lawyer from South Carolina.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:00 pm |
    • kryg

      I agree. I also believe that most Harvard and Yale graduates today are not better than the graduates of most selective public universities. Most Harvard and Yale graduates simply have more money and political connections.

      May 22, 2010 at 7:53 am |
  5. KGB

    Article VI of the Constitution states:

    The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

    It's the only time the word "ever" appears in the Constitution. The founders were quite clear on this.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:26 pm |
  6. april

    My observation is that Catholics do NOT think like Protestants. Jews perhaps. I'm protestant and I find much more common ground with a Jew than a Catholic. The Catholic perception of morality, law/rules, and judgment is very different.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:15 pm |
  7. Terik Ororke

    Are you kidding? Quantum physics cannot even explain a Black Hole let alone the myth of separation of church and state. People who live in a state and who are religious cannot be denied citizenship because they are religious or not religious. Who cares about make up of courts or anything else? Politics is a black hole.

    May 19, 2010 at 9:11 pm |
  8. IndyPensive

    I think that all members of the Supreme Court should have to give up religious and party affiliations when appointed.

    May 19, 2010 at 8:21 pm |
    • Brian

      I think you're right. The interpretation of the laws written would indicate that they would be obligated to leave their gendor, race, religion at the door. Ideally, the Justices would do so. Understandably, they have a worldview and the worldview cannot be modified easily. In many instances, it is a Judeo/Christian worldview. Most Americans have a Judeo/Christian worldview. Most laws were written with a Judeo/Christian worldview. Whether the Judge is Jewish, Christian, athiest, or agnostic, they are able to understand the laws written and interpret them properly.

      May 20, 2010 at 7:42 am |
  9. bailoutsos

    6 Catholic judges and 3 Jewish judges go into a bar and a Jewish judge turns to the Catholic judges and asks, "Any one know that Protestant bartender?

    May 19, 2010 at 6:38 pm |
  10. adrifter

    I believe there are probably already atheists on the Supreme Court. Just like politicians, judges and lawyers have to claim to believe in some nonsense religion or else risk professional suicide. That's the sad fact. It's too bad people can't stand up as atheists without risking a backlash, but that's the way it is. Amen.

    May 19, 2010 at 6:10 pm |
  11. Erynion

    This guy has a published book on what every American needs to know about being literate about religion. Then he says here that he changed his position on the very nature of protestants after talking to Nora Rubel. Can you say "credibility lost?" Also, this guy doesn't know protestant. The majority of protestants in this country are Baptist. I was raised by Baptists. They are fascists. They are intolerant. They think they have the only way into heaven (they think some other people may have Christ in their heart – and thus be "saved" – but they think nobody else teaches it right). You don't find a non-fascist Baptist who actually attends church – and if someone says they are Baptist you can bet the house they go to church. Reformed Catholics and Jews are nothing like them. The right-wing conservative extremists are mainly Baptists. Thank the god that doesn't exist that there are no more protestants on the Supreme Court.

    May 19, 2010 at 5:58 pm |
  12. Brian

    How about selecting Supreme Court judges that interpret the laws of the land rather than worrying about their religion, race, heritage, or gender.
    Why is it that we try to make it matter? The president of the United States has the ability (whether he / she uses it or not) to discern the qualifications and characteristics of the potential candidates and ensure that his decision is based on their ability to interpret the laws that are in place.
    I truly understand that some judges can interpret items differently, and that is why there are 9 judges.
    Rather than stereotype individuals based on their gendor or religion, look at their character and how they would manage themselves within their role.
    That is the issue.... Not their religion (or lack of it).
    It's not a separation of church and state issue.... It's an issue of interpreting existing laws.

    May 19, 2010 at 4:59 pm |
  13. Mustaqur Rahman

    "In God We Trust" (except for a very few people, of course). But, where is God in the state's laws that have been created by the people and for the people under the rule of the people?
    USA is a country of people of various faiths, most famously Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, co-existing with many more religious practices in the Capitalist and Democratic system of statehood.
    The rule of democratic laws adopted by the citizenry represents the people's wish and choice for a discipline in their characteristic way of life that does not reflect a particular religious belief, which virtually propagates a secular type of legal guideline. And, naturally, the judiciary is supposed to be out of any religious influence.
    If the honorable judges must represent the religious sects, then, at least, the most popular religions should be represented proportionally in the judicial process just to have a perfect judicial body.
    However, the question remains, how just the justice will be when a judge is chosen politically (that is biased). Besides, someone might question the judgments, such as, a convicted murderer is set free and an illegal drug dealer is sentenced for life!
    According to many religions, every individual is under the (final) judgment of God The Almighty.

    May 19, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
  14. Bill

    As a devote Catholic I know that Catholics and Protestants have fundamental areas of dogma on which they disagree. From my perspective, and I mean no disrespect, Protestants are missing out on half of faith. Christianity, for the practical Catholic, is about the Bible and about the works/deeds of the Church and her members. Protestants, I think, leave off the second half. Certainly they do so by design, but the two perspectives are, therefore, quite different.

    May 19, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
  15. P. Benedict

    Hi Joe, religion is really working out just great for us. All the altar boys you can handle and deluded followers who keep us supplied with fresh ones. And, get this, when you get caught you just get passed onto fresh, unsuspecting victims!

    May 19, 2010 at 2:09 pm |
  16. JT

    I'm always amazed at just how many people do not know what atheism is. I don't know if they misrepresent on purpose or they just never get their information from any other source than their pastor. Atheism is simply the lack of a belief in a deity. All atheists I know lack a belief because there is a lack of evidence.

    May 19, 2010 at 2:00 pm |
    • Luke

      JT – further amusement to me: Nearly all Christians, Jews and Muslims are also atheists. They reject Thor, Pan, Posideon, Zeus, etc. I, and I assume you, just take it one god further, rejecting Yahweh.

      May 19, 2010 at 2:58 pm |
    • JT

      True, they are only one god away from being an atheist but that one last holdout is a real doozy and they are holding on with dear life. Such fear!

      May 19, 2010 at 8:00 pm |
  17. J. Stalin

    Atheism worked well in my country. Y'all should give it a try, too!

    May 19, 2010 at 1:59 pm |
  18. XWngLady

    Interesting article. I applaud the author for being open enough to accept that he may have been wrong (or at least not thoroughly informed). There is not enough of that kind of character in the media today. Thanks for sharing.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:53 pm |
  19. Khan

    An increasing number of educated people worldwide are becoming atheists – or more appropraitely irreligious. This is to be expected because all the major faiths in the world despite all the reformations still present a retrograde notion of existence. However, so strong is the grip of this oldest prejudice in our minds that if asked, most people will align with some faith to appease the community around. So for all you know we may have a reasonable atheistic representation everywhere already, its time to assert itself has still not come in America.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:41 pm |
  20. madison

    An atheist is protestant in the same sense that an orthodox Jew is protestant by the definition that this article gives! Both just have to think that religion is something that is personal. For an atheist, whose decision to not believe in a god was a personal decision, the decision to not "be religious" is for personal enrichment and was not made by the community or anyone else.

    May 19, 2010 at 1:40 pm |
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