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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. AG

    Good choice for court judges by badly aligned for the right wing of the USA.
    Quebec is too non religious and fun on this one and too Davinvci code source to bother with the old view to things. That explains parts of the missippi delta region up to QUebec itself. Real reason this is bit odd to faith belief in religion is if ET were true, what are their belief compared to us and had plenty more time to interpret things?

    May 22, 2010 at 4:46 am |
    • NAG

      Hard to believe that the Davinci code populance mostly live here and other odd spots all over the world.

      May 22, 2010 at 4:48 am |
  2. notherROUND

    It was not outright said, but this article leads me to believe that it's purpose might be that of suggesting we need a MUSLIM in our court. It's bad enough having a MUSLIM president. We don't need the Muslim religion imbedded in our court system. It's screwed up enough.

    May 21, 2010 at 11:08 pm |
  3. John Robertson

    Exactlt what is wrong with america.. The protestant values reduced to math that doesnt add up

    May 21, 2010 at 9:45 pm |
    • Michael Wong

      No, what's wrong with America is the fact that people treat it like a consumer product rather than a collective endeavour. The number one question on their lips is "am I getting good value for my money".

      They treat it like buying a used car, not building a nation.

      May 21, 2010 at 10:06 pm |
    • price

      @ Micheal Wong ...very true...although We are involved in 2 wars, our nation has a mindset diametrically opposed to the amazing spirit that permeated Our Nation during WWII. Uniting together as a nation is NOT socialism, rescuing industries that are the backbone of Our industry is NOT communism! We are so blind as to the mistakes We are making...just a brief glance at recent world history should alert ALL OF US to our lack of sensibility and reasonableness.

      May 22, 2010 at 2:48 am |
  4. dw

    Who really cares. All these religious zealots ought to get a life (elsewhere)!

    May 21, 2010 at 7:55 pm |
  5. Todd

    We don't need more religious diversity on the SC - we need no religion at all - there, or anywhere ELSE in the Government. Religion has no more place in law or governance than it does in corporate management. Religion is personal, so keep it to yourself.

    May 21, 2010 at 3:50 pm |
    • price

      amen, bruddha

      May 22, 2010 at 2:35 am |
  6. Truth

    Thank God for the Roman Catholic Church holding the line on morality.

    May 21, 2010 at 2:28 pm |
  7. Michael Wong

    America won't be truly diverse until you see at least 1 representative on the supreme court whose beliefs do NOT descend from Bronze Age Israel. Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim ... these are all siblings. What about atheists, buddhists, or hindus?

    There is NO diversity on the US Supreme Court, and almost none in its government. To publicly declare yourself an atheist is the political kiss of death, and Christians actually have the gall to complain that it's hard to be a Christian nowadays. If you think it's hard to be a Christian, try being an atheist. Make that conversion and you just kissed the possibility of political office good-bye (not to mention a lot of business opportunities; churches are excellent business networking venues).

    May 21, 2010 at 12:20 pm |
    • verify

      Well said, Michael. And how far do you think a Scientologist would get in the political arena?

      Question for Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, JWs, etc.: How do you view Scientologists? Are they misguided? Wacko? Hey, they have a BOOK... doesn't that make them legit? Well, think about it... that is exactly how nonbelievers in religion regard your belief system.

      May 21, 2010 at 3:45 pm |
  8. Jerry

    Anyone who believes in virgin birth and follows the dictates of a pedophile in a dress is sadly misguided. As an example of how early religious training leads to later mental instability, Scalia on the SC has said the symbol of the cross does not represent christianity.

    May 21, 2010 at 9:03 am |
    • meh

      @Jerry

      I have no strength to debate your statements of hate and misguided opinions – however, POSSIBLY you may have heard the Catholiics prefer a crucifix as a symbol of Jesus' death. Usually a crucifix will have the dying Christ versus plain cross that doesnt specifically acknowledge Christ' crucifixion – the crucifix is his Dying on the cross – not the cross itself. I am no scholar – but I didnt understand the difference until I was older. The symbol could be cosidered an object – versus Christ is what we should be reminded of. 🙂 I could be wrong.

      May 24, 2010 at 6:16 pm |
  9. Mohammad Cartoon

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    May 20, 2010 at 10:32 pm |
  10. Obama = Bush = Rubbish

    .
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    May 20, 2010 at 7:31 pm |
  11. Bill Mulligan

    Justice Thomas may have been Catholic at some point in his life, but he has been a communicant of the Episcopal Church for some years. This issue is very "old politics" from a time when religion may have mattered more than it does today. Catholic and Jewish encompass a broad spectrum of viewpoints–as does Protestant. An evangelical Protestant justice might make religion worth discussing in this context. As it stands, religion and the Supreme Court is really irrelevant and should be.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:36 pm |
  12. Becca

    The Supreme Court should be devoid of religion. Furthermore, in the mean time an Atheist should be on it.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
  13. just a question

    Why does this matter? a person's religion has nothing to do with the rest of the world.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
    • Michael Wong

      It does if he tries to craft laws based on that religion.

      Law = force. There are no such thing as voluntary laws. It's funny how people all agree that religion should not use force, yet they don't see the problem with religion influencing laws.

      May 21, 2010 at 12:44 pm |
  14. Maltheus

    The problem here is that Catholics and Jews tend to be concentrated in the northeast and the northeast is like an entirely different country (perhaps, sharing their identity with California). So we continue to get big government justices who look down on the constitution as archaic. But of course, their job is not to look down on the constitution, but to protect it as the supreme law of the land.

    I was raised a Northeastern catholic and now that I live in a red state, I been frequently accused of being a cultist by protestants out here. They don't see us as the same, they are the majority in this country and they should have at least some representation on the court. Even Muslims outnumber Jews in this country, why not one of them?

    May 20, 2010 at 2:48 pm |
  15. jonathan

    One day there will be a tongue talking Jew in the White House...LOL

    May 20, 2010 at 2:20 pm |
  16. Jackson from FP

    Why don't we have an illegal immigrant on the Court? They make up 14% of the country. We need a "Fair and Balanced" Supreme Court!

    Workers of the World unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.

    May 20, 2010 at 1:13 pm |
  17. Pablo

    From the CIA factbook:
    51.3% of Americans are Protestant
    23.9% are Catholic
    1.7% are Jewish (about the same as Mormon and "other" Christian)
    and 0.6% are Muslim
    Shouldn't the makeup of the court (if religion "matters) be more like the makeup of our country?
    So 4 Protestants, 2 Catholics, 1 Anglican (mix of catholic and Protestant), and to be nice 1 Jew and 1 Mormon... that makes more sense to me.

    May 20, 2010 at 11:17 am |
    • just a question

      what avout the atheists?

      May 20, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
    • kryg

      Remember there was a time when there were no Catholics in the SC. Supreme Court judges are selected based on qualifications and not on religion.

      May 22, 2010 at 7:37 am |
  18. John Bell

    We should remember that 5 of the 6 Catholics [Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito] were chosen because the pool of anti-abortion WASPs with sufficient education to serve is small-to-non-existent.

    May 20, 2010 at 10:44 am |
  19. Andy

    Andy, here's the article. Kagan was Bat Mitzvehed, so she's definetely NOT catholic 🙂

    May 20, 2010 at 10:27 am |
  20. Don

    Let's see–Catholicism came from Judaism and Protestantism came from Catholicism. Seems like these folks might all have the same Judeo-Christian moral underpinnings.

    May 20, 2010 at 7:27 am |
    • Brian

      Yes, I agree. I don't understand what the big deal is. Judges are interpreters of the law. They do not write the law. Therefore, as long as the worldview they have is similar to the worldview of the writers of the law, the interpretation of the law written is possible, whether Jew, Catholic, Protestant, American atheist, or American agnostic. If a Justice were presented that had a different worldview, the concern would be much higher.
      With all of that being said, I do not know whether this appointed judge will understand her role as interpreting the law. Sometimes, judges like to write the law by the decisions they make and place it in the common law books.

      May 20, 2010 at 7:49 am |
    • kryg

      So what's wrong if Judaism and Catholicism provide the "tools" for persons to become the best lawyers and justices who will promote social justice and right decisions for the common good / majority?

      May 22, 2010 at 7:45 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.