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. msmilder

    The United States may be mostly protestant, but those faiths are fractured, and don't represent a united front. Whereas the United States has the largest population of Jews on the planet (6.5 million to Israels 4.95) and one of the largest Catholic populations on the planet (only behind Brazil, Mexico & the Philippines). They represent a more united presence. I'm still shocked we have only had 1 Catholic president, whereas we've had 12 Episcopal presidents...the US has 66,404,000 Catholics (largest single church in America) compared to only 2,365,000 Epicopals (the 16th largest church in America).

    May 24, 2010 at 2:24 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      We have had only one Catholic President because this is still a young nation. In the beginning in this country, Catholics were not permitted to worship as we can today. Nevertheless, people still cling to the falsehoods that they learned from their parents, Protestant churches, and many other ways; but now with the internet they are able to seek the Truth for themselves instead of taking hand-me-down tales as Truth. Many watch EWTN and are finding out some wonderful things that they did not know about the Catholic Faith. Protestants are beginning to realize that if they say that the Catholic Church is a false religion then they have to say they are clinging to a false Bible because they received the Bible from the Catholic Church. Once Catholics [all of them] adhere to their Faith in its entirety, we will have another Catholic President, abortion will be abolished, and this country will once again be one nation under God again!

      May 24, 2010 at 8:53 pm |
  2. msmilder

    I have never thought about the supreme court in terms of religious affiliation. You give me something to think about. I don't know that it really matters in today's society, any more than the religious affiliation of our Congressmen. But it is something to think about.

    May 24, 2010 at 2:15 pm |
  3. Mitch

    People who let their religion guide their daily activities are simply too stupid to think for themselves. Mercifully, those dunderheads don't make it far enough to be considered for the Supreme Court.

    May 24, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
    • Randy

      You don't sound insecure enough. Please try harder.

      May 24, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
    • kryg

      In reality, authentic religions have helped many people be more mature, independent, not go with the flow/fads/fashions of the crowd, more ethical, and charitable. Also religion have helped many people make decisions or choices that others, who do not value religion, spirituality, and morality, regret later in their decaying damaged disintegrating lives.

      May 24, 2010 at 3:19 pm |


    May 24, 2010 at 10:58 am |
  5. Randy

    "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."

    She cannot be serious. This is one of the stupidest assertions I have ever read on the subject of religion.

    May 24, 2010 at 8:45 am |
  6. JeffH

    A bit of history for those who need it: "...under God..." was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 during the McCarthy "Communist witch-hunts" - i.e. legislators were in very real danger of being declared Communists if they did not support this change. "In God We Trust" likewise was not an original motto for US currency, it did not appear on paper currency until 1957 (ah McCarthyism!). It was not legally allowed to be placed on US currency until 1864, and was only used on a few coins until 1938.

    May 24, 2010 at 7:46 am |
  7. meh

    Man is the virus, not religion. Who evolved first? man or religion? Blaming religion is easy and requires no argument for the statement except to say – we disagree and it is always the other person's fault.

    We are the virus and we are the cure. But we will never be one and therefore will always be weak as human beings and will not evolve much further than our current capacity.

    It is respect for an opinion different than our own that will cure our virus. Science is science and can be hypothesized and tested and proven – when people of science decide all others are the lesser ones – than science, too is infected with this human created virus.

    It is my opinion – right or wrong, fact or fiction. I respect that not everyone will agree with me and that is what will advance our evolution – whether God is exists or he doesnt. That is really not even the point.... 🙂

    May 24, 2010 at 12:49 am |
    • Michael Wong

      That is a really dumb question. Obviously, man evolved before religion. There is no such thing as organized religion among animals.

      As for the rest, it is ridiculous to say that all ideas are the same just because they came from men. Are you going to say that mathematics is a "virus" too, just because it came from men? Science is an empirical, objective methodology: that is something you cannot say for any religion on this planet.

      May 24, 2010 at 1:43 am |
    • meh

      @Michael Wong

      I was responding to an earlier comment that religion is the virus. You are correct – man was born first, then learned of God. My point exactly – how can you blame religion? That is not a very scientific reply. My point was that – if man could learn to use our higher mind or abilities to debate and respect opinions that are not the same as our own – just maybe we could address the issue instead of blaming everything on religion.

      Your comment was ignorant and proves my point – just because my opinion is different than yours – you show no tolerance. No one said science wasnt truth. As far as math as a virus...are you kidding me? Second point – no one bothers to read the entire story before commenting. Your lower primal brain insists on finding one point to argue with no true concept of the real big picture. That makes you the same level as the religious you reject and put down. How does that make you a better person because of science. If science is not capable of acknowledging other alternatives – than what does that say. However, I think science is at a different level – at least hypothesis are formulated BEFORE making judgment. What are hypothesis? Educated guesses. How is that guess any different than our faith(guess) that there is indeed a higher power. You buy in at the level low enough that progress will never be made – and that is man's problem, not religions.

      May 24, 2010 at 6:28 pm |
  8. wowlfie

    Put 60 Catholics, 30 Jews, and 10 Muslims in a room and watch the fireworks!

    The world will never be at peace as long as the virus called 'religion' is alive and well in mankind.

    May 23, 2010 at 6:26 pm |
    • kryg

      In fact, take away the "Christianity factor" in the last 2000 years and probably you could not even find places of peace harmony, and progress in the world. Christianity has contributed so much in the development/progress of civilizations, cultures, science, medicine, laws, social justice, social work, brotherhood, harmony, and peace in the world.

      May 24, 2010 at 5:22 am |
  9. A N

    Why not a mediocre, below average check-out clerk? They must get their represenattion. They represent more than 10% of all Americans.
    Failed Safeway clerk for SCOTUS!!

    May 23, 2010 at 3:40 pm |
  10. mb

    I will say that hard evidence ie photographs and video do not exists, but reliable historical evidence does. The eyewitnesses were hardly interested parties as the only benefit received from proclaiming the Gospel was death by martyrdom. As far as the legal perspective, Dr. Simon Greenleaf and Frank Morrison have both shown that the evidence does stand up under the legal demands. I would say the burden of proof is on the skeptics to prove that the resurrection didn't happen.

    May 23, 2010 at 2:37 pm |
    • Michael Wong

      Utterly ridiculous. You would not accept a handful of decades-old eyewitness accounts as proof of alien visitation; why do you accept them as proof of something as remarkable as resurrection from death? The idea of demanding proof that a miracle did NOT happen is utterly laughable, and demonstrates your near-total divorce from logic.

      May 23, 2010 at 6:11 pm |
  11. mb

    I agree with the author that most Protestants think of their religion as a subjective set of feelings and ideas. This is incorrect however, as both Catholics and Protestants have hard physical/historical evidence to back up their faith. Their faith is not a subjective feeling. Jesus either rose from the dead or he didn't and the evidence supports that he did.

    May 23, 2010 at 12:32 pm |
    • Michael Wong

      I don't think you understand what "hard physical/historical evidence" means. There is ZERO hard physical or historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection. There is only the account of a few eyewitnesses, all of whom are interested parties, none of which were even committed to paper until decades after the fact. You couldn't win a lawsuit today based on such sketchy evidence, never mind proving something as remarkable as a resurrection from death.

      May 23, 2010 at 1:09 pm |
    • kryg

      To Michael Wong: If judges and jury believe in the witnesses, the case is won. Faith is needed to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. The growth of Christianity as the no. 1 global religion and its great contributions to civilizations and cultures are evidences enough that lead many "judges and juries" to decide that Jesus resurrected, his teachings are powerful and good, that the Christian movement promotes harmony, peace, and joy, and that there is a "greater unseen power" behind the movement.

      May 24, 2010 at 5:38 am |
  12. David Fisher

    Why are mainstream commentators worried about the religious affiliations of the Supremes? What’s their problem?

    Is it anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism? Hardly. That there are six Catholics and three Jews really isn’t the issue at all. It’s that there are no Protestants, and this makes the Protestants protest.

    Why does it bother them? Because they have been left out of the most important and prestigious jobs in American jurisprudence? Or, might it be more subtle than that? Can they have been made uneasy by this proof that these two minorities enjoy a disproportionate share of the excellence and achievement? That the best of the best come not from the majority but from two minorities, both of which have been vilified, feared, and persecuted throughout much of American history?

    May 23, 2010 at 11:34 am |
  13. That Guy

    Why would you ask someone who is Jewish about Protestant and catholic thought? Offensive, simplistic, and to justify 3/4 of a country's population continue to not have representation on their highest court makes me think you will justify just about anything.

    May 23, 2010 at 9:55 am |
    • Michael Wong

      Why is "Protestant and Catholic thought" even vaguely relevant to the job of a Supreme Court judge, whose job is to interpret legal documents?

      May 23, 2010 at 1:11 pm |
  14. Jere Gallup

    What is the purpose for all of CNN's commentators talking and moving through their presentations like they have "ant's in their pants?" What is the hurry and rush? It makes you sound and look like a neophyte who speaks without real knowledge of your material; that you have a tendency to jump to conclusions without and balanced view which, in most cases, you are. Is it simply the cost or air time?

    May 23, 2010 at 8:06 am |
    • Michael Wong

      People who don't have much experience in public presentation tend to rush through their material. It's a common trait, and people who train others in public speaking always have to coach people on controlling their pace.

      May 23, 2010 at 1:12 pm |
  15. Mark

    Hey Srikanth (May 19, 2010 at 10:41 am), what in heck are you saying? Y'know, you're not making much sense. But from what I can figure out from your post, I'm just as glad it's not clear.

    May 22, 2010 at 9:49 pm |
  16. marquez

    Thos Jefferson may have been right about the vote.
    Actually, I am a bit bothered by the composition of the court. It shouldn't be a litmus test, but five Catholics are a bit much. These people are afflicted in a way that is very difficult to overcome. Have you ever read J Joyce' Portrait of the Artist? As an athiest (not agnostic), I think I would be a pretty good justice, although not all that schooled in the law. As a strong believer in the 1st amendment, I've no desire to supress religious belief, no matter how idiotic.
    There are lots of good books out there. I would recommend Bertrand Russell "Why I am not a Christian".

    May 22, 2010 at 6:23 pm |
  17. Yaydee

    Having just nine justices seems to limit diversity. Statistics would suggest 31 justices. As a nation, we have gone from 26 senators to 100...why not more justices?

    May 22, 2010 at 5:31 pm |
  18. About Time

    To all of you blue bloods and rednecks who hate people who aren't like you, you can kiss our collective ethnic ass. Fewer and fewer WASPs are in power and the WASPs are becoming less WASPy.

    May 22, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
  19. yahoo

    The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America states: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Would this not indicate a foundational belief in a Creator (notice the capital C in Creator)?

    May 22, 2010 at 12:07 pm |
    • Michael Wong

      Leaving aside the fact that the Declaration of Independence has no actual legal standing, most of the American founders probably did believe in God. They also believed in slavery.

      You people need to stop worshipping those guys. They had some very good ideas, and some very bad ones. Quite frankly, who gives a damn what they thought about God? They had a lot of goofy ideas. Thomas Jefferson thought that only monied land-owners should have the vote!

      May 22, 2010 at 1:52 pm |
    • kryg

      To Michal Wong: It is so easy to judge the people of history with our modern lenses. Not that I believe in slavery, but not all slaves were treated badly. Some enjoyed a better life with their benevolent masters.

      May 24, 2010 at 5:49 am |
  20. Yoda

    How did sooooo many Jews get into the U.S Govt?! Hmmmm.....I know why, because they are the most racist bags of crap on the planet. They only hire and support their own kind. They don't care about equal opportunity. Just look at CNN: Dana Bash, Wolf Blitzer, and Larry King are all Jews. And that's just the main anchors, just imagine how many of the producers and staff are Jews. Don't get me started on Hollywood. Just think, if you tried to get your child into acting and you're not a jew......competing against jewish kids and their parents....you got a 1 in a billion chance. Then they push all the attention away from themselves by driving a divide between Blacks, whites, and all other races. They might as well change all of the Stars on the American Flag to Stars of David.

    May 22, 2010 at 11:51 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.