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. Stan

    While you're at it, you can ask why the following group aren't represented in the court...

    An ATHEIST judge, an ASIAN judge, a MUSLIM judge, a BUDDHIST, a NATIVE INDIAN judge, a VEGETARIAN judge, a GAY judge, a MIDGET judge, a SATANIST judge, a SCIENTOLOGIST judge, even a NAZI judge, etc. I think the world is runing out of news hence the need to emphasize these ridiculous trivial differences such as race and religion. Who else is sick of it??

    May 19, 2010 at 10:40 am |
    • Mike

      Oooh! Me, me!

      May 19, 2010 at 11:09 am |
  2. DC

    Why should we care how they worship? Do we not have the freedom in this country to worship (or not to worship) as we choose? All that matters here is the job they do.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:39 am |
  3. Brian

    In my experience, whenever people argue for religous diversity, its not really diversity, because you are still talking about people with the same fundamental belief of a god and an afterlife. And the one thing they can all agree on is they don't want atheists involved.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:39 am |
  4. .

    CNN is turning into a disgusting network, i wonder what their goal was when they created this headline

    May 19, 2010 at 10:39 am |
  5. Leahann

    Why would anyone want to keep track. It's the most qualified intellegent people that are appointed. Religion should not matter. Always with the Drama.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:39 am |
  6. interested

    I agree; way too many Jews – proportionately to their population in the US there should be max one on the court and the rest need to be Protestants, say 3-4.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:39 am |
    • Tina

      The way Supreme Court justices are chosen has nothing to do with making sure they accurately reflect the religious demographic of America....and if it did, I would be pretty alarmed.

      May 19, 2010 at 10:42 am |
    • Leahann

      They ALL have to follow the rules, this is not about religion, grow up. Black, white, green, purple, it's the brains and intellect that matters here.

      May 19, 2010 at 10:45 am |
    • Imbecile

      So, it's just a coincidence that 6 of them are catholic?

      May 19, 2010 at 10:46 am |
    • Tina

      @Imbecile Nope, you're right. I'm not saying they don't reflect the religious demographic of the President, his advisors, or his campaign contributors (also scary). My point was just that it's silly to say they're meant to reflect the religious demographic of America as a whole. After all, where are you going to find someone who's a quarter atheist, one sixteenth Taoist...and so on and so forth?

      May 19, 2010 at 11:00 am |
  7. dsfd

    CJs are not nominate based on the religion..grow up..

    May 19, 2010 at 10:39 am |
  8. Joe

    Why make this distinction? They all have to follow the same rules – rules of law- regardless of their religious beliefs. And if they don't then they should not be in that position.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:39 am |
  9. Ron Abfalter

    Next there will be a pagan on the court. Where oh where is it all going? Come on people. Go to church/temple/synagogue or what ever. Live a good life, be kind. But please let's leave church and state apart. If we as a country are all that we say we are this shouldn't even be an issue let alone mentioned as news.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:38 am |
  10. sd726

    No gingers either, gay or straight. Diversity is dead.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:38 am |
  11. and... budhists, muslims etc

    there are a whole host of religions not represented, interesting observation but not something to get your panties bunched up over

    May 19, 2010 at 10:37 am |
  12. Kamereon

    Religion doesn't matter, but their politics do – I would be curious to know whether or not the the three Jews are pro israel or not. If they are pro, they should be disbarred immediately.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:37 am |
  13. Imbecile

    How about this equation instead:

    9 atheists + 0 dogmatists = court rulings based on laws, not fairy tales

    May 19, 2010 at 10:37 am |
  14. Angela

    "Either way, we could use more religious diversity on the Supreme Court."

    Why does their religion matter? I would like to see less religious diversity...ie atheist = 9.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:37 am |
    • judgetrainer

      Do the beliefs of judges, elected officials or anyone else not matter? If you are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, pagan, agnostic or atheist that says something about what you believe is right and wrong. It may or may not affect how a person rules on a particular case but I would not bet on it.

      May 19, 2010 at 10:58 am |
  15. Jeremy

    oh okay, so now this guy is saying everyone is essentially a protestant. what an idiot. how about look at it as 9 people = 9 people.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:37 am |
  16. Brian

    Torch, you may be born into a religion because of your family or whatnot, but at some point, it becomes a personal choice. I was born into a catholic family, got confirmed, etc. Around 14, it just didn't feel right anymore. By 20, I was an atheist, which I have been up until now, at age 37.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:37 am |
    • Sand

      Oh, and you are obviously very proud of this accomplishment? achievement? So.....who cares.

      May 20, 2010 at 5:45 pm |
  17. aaron

    because athist have no religon

    May 19, 2010 at 10:36 am |
    • rileyworks

      Precisely. All the more reason to get a few in there. It's nice to see a majority in this comment thread realizing that and bring up the seperation of church & state! We are not, were not and never will be a theocracy.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:00 am |
  18. DownTownBrown

    Or, we could, we COULD have justices that aren't aligned with ANY religion! You know, people who draw conclusions from facts, science, education; not a book of stories conjured up four centuries ago.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:36 am |
    • John

      Right, because your scientific method explains everything, right?

      Leave your ignorance at the door please.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:16 pm |
  19. Neo

    Must be a really slow news day for CNN to even bring up this subject. To bad CNN doesn't implement a like/dislike voting system so we can bury this article.....

    May 19, 2010 at 10:36 am |
  20. Bill

    Why should we care? Are we not the country that frowns on measuring people by where they choose to worship?

    May 19, 2010 at 10:36 am |
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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.