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. bill

    An estimated 6% of Americans do not believe in religion. Less than 3% of the U.S. population are Jewish. Only 22% of Americans are estimated Catholic – yet close to 60% of the supreme court is Catholic. Of course these judges cannot separate their faith from the law, so why is this not taken into consideration with Supreme Court picks?

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

      I would easily say the 6% is a low ball number on how many Atheist are in this country. There are many people who choose not to come out in fear of what will happen to them (family, work wise). I would say at least 10-15% are really Atheist with another 10-15% being Agnostic, the rest of course is mixed through-out all religions then. It's just more and more people are going Agnostic or Atheist in the last few years and it's at a good growing rate which I like 😉

      May 19, 2010 at 10:50 am |
    • kevin

      wayyyy more than 6% pal, way more

      May 19, 2010 at 11:01 am |
    • bill

      I think you're right, Seth. Think of all the people who only go to church on holidays to please their parents or because it's just tradition. That's not truly being religious.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:04 am |
    • SusieKJ

      Yes, actually most of the demographics of the US I've seen denote Christians at about 75% of the population (with Catholics at about 25%), Misc at 10% (Jews at 1.5%, Hindus at 1%, Muslims at 1%), and then those that state No Religion as 15%. So almost 1 in 6 Americans is a non-believer, but the other 85% typically try to present us as a smidgeon of the population – something that is rare and hidden with needs that don't need to be addressed heh. But that's changing as the world has more access to information and knowledge that refutes magical thinking, despite theology's attack on science and reason. And nothing sways folks from religion more than fellow theists with all the killing, threats of killing, raping of children, judgment of others, and refusal to accept things that are known to be true, like how old the earth is.
      So looking at demographics, a 25% population having 66% of the SC and a 1.5% group having 33% of the SC is a marked departure from US representation imo. Someday hopefully we'll have those on the court to represent the 15% and growing who believe one should be good to their fellow humans not because a book says so, but because we can see how treating others affects the world around us.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:27 am |
  2. jim


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

      I agree. Religion is simply a form of brainwashing.

      May 19, 2010 at 10:47 am |
    • bill

      I bet you also believe in tolerance and treating those different from you with respect...i guess that's off the table, and atheism is still a religious belief. You can't prove God doesn't exist nor more than you can prove he does. Your quote was a slap in you're own face.

      May 19, 2010 at 10:58 am |
  3. hike108

    Hmmm, Catholics and Jews. Maybe fundamental Protestants, right-wingers, don't have the level of intelligence expected of Supreme Court Justices?

    May 19, 2010 at 10:45 am |
  4. Cherie

    How can anyone not be concerned about the fact that our Supreme Court is so heavily weighted to the Catholic Church? The abuses of the Church in Europe are some of the main reasons that we have the separation of church and state - one-third of our government is controlled by those connected to the Catholic Church, most people don't even realize it, and no one considers that alarming?

    May 19, 2010 at 10:44 am |
    • Steven P

      Following your logic, we could never trust anyone from the Democratic party, since the KKK was their militant wing at one time. That's just silly, isn't it?

      May 19, 2010 at 10:47 am |
    • Cait40


      May 20, 2010 at 2:43 pm |
  5. Marie

    The declared religions(or lack of) by justices isn't news. I wonder why it is even noted? And it is disrespectful to one's religions to rename them all "protestants". Respect others religious choice ... if I consider myself Buddhist and agree with issues as do my Protestant friends, I am still Buddhist.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:44 am |
  6. craig

    Why? Why does the Supreme Court need to be more religiously diverse? Isn't there supposed to be separation of Church and State? Is there some logic that says we need "one conservative Jew, one liberal Methodist, one female Catholic, one liberal Muslim....." Is there any reason to believe that would result in a better set of decisions?

    The premise of the "scholar" is wrong – the Supreme Court should be religion-blind, not religion specifc.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:44 am |
  7. Truther

    Does it really matter anyway... All religion does is hold back man kind... Its time to move past this silly part of human history.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:44 am |
  8. L. Kurt Engelhart

    What seems to be overlooked here is that a formal religious background of whatever nature is required for the kind of social status that can get you on the Supreme Court. This constitutes severe religious discrimination, but no one will ever call it that.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:43 am |
  9. jim


    May 19, 2010 at 10:43 am |
  10. Missy

    Yep! So long separation of Church & State. How about some athiests or *gasp* Pagans in there too?

    May 19, 2010 at 10:43 am |
  11. Pedro

    Atheists aren't mentioned because that really would make this post a hatred topic of some kind (just kidding). The surprise is that an specialist on religion (famous for writing about it) dismisses completely the role of atheists in a place where secularism should be the rule, am I wrong?

    If he wants religious diversity in the US Supreme Court, why not consider the fact that religion plays an indirect role in their decisions, and shouldn't be considered as something of that importance.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:43 am |
  12. moderateray

    As an Episcopalian, maybe I am to catholic (def: universal) in my thinking but I read the scorecard: Christians 9, Jews 3. And, next opening, let's put in Bill Maher, just to shut him up about religion 🙂

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

      Bill Maher is a stand-up comic. I think maybe I'll start taking advice from Jerry Seinfeld.

      May 23, 2010 at 11:04 am |
  13. jane doe

    what's the breakdown of the jewish votes in the pensilvania democratic primary yesterday? if it was a black vs. white, the media would have been brimming numbers. what gives?

    May 19, 2010 at 10:42 am |
  14. James White

    I agree with the blogger. Most Catholics in the US, including myself do not agree with Rome and are more in tune with Protestant morality. Rome's insistence upon anti-choice; anti- birth control; anti-gay; anti-women clergy and anti-condoms as a prevention for AIDS have forced many Catholics to ignore moral preaching from Rome or our Bishops. And, of course the Pedophilia cover-up at the highest levels of the Church Hierarchy only did more to push many away. So, bottom line – Religious affiliation doesn't really matter on the Court except if one of the Justices is a zealot which may actually be the case with a few.

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

      Oh, Mr. White, and just why do you call yourself a Catholic? If you don't like the Catholic religion and teachings you can follow whatever else you want to believe in. All of the above are strict beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church and they will not change just because your feelings changed. Just like Judaism, and Buddism, etc. etc. have not changed to the liking of their followers. And as for the 6C plus 3J, does this mean they are smarter than the aethists or protestants? Probably!

      May 20, 2010 at 2:53 pm |
    • BrianCNN

      You are not Catholic and I doubt that you have ever been, Mr. Fake Poster Person.

      May 23, 2010 at 11:03 am |
  15. Texas Granny

    So is the media trying to stir something up here? For pete sake folks, quit looking under every rock for some bogey man. The paranoid atmosphere in this country is getting totally out of hand. Can't we just be "people"? Can't we just act like decent human beings and quit looking for something to complain about every single turn? Darn, sometimes I think life was really so much better before the flippin' internet. 🙂
    And I really wish the media would get back to "reporting the news" instead of trying to "make" the news.

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

      Bogey Man!

      May 23, 2010 at 11:00 am |
  16. pam

    Protestants, Jews and Catholics couldn't be farther from being alike. They may be Americanized but certainly raised with different ethos.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:41 am |
    • Jason

      All of them...along with Muslims....worship the same god.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:03 am |
  17. Oblio

    I thought the Justices were supposed to make decision based on the Constitution, not the Bible, Torah, Quran, Bhagavad Gita, etc...

    May 19, 2010 at 10:41 am |
  18. GirlOutWest

    Religion plays a HUGE role in how people think, vote and behave. I think it's relevant, even if church and state are supposed to be separate. While the system may prevent government employees from speaking about religion, it's naive to believe they aren't thinking it.

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

      I think in today's culture, how you think and what you believe have influence on the religion (or lack thereof) you CHOOSE to practice – and less that the religion you happen to be dictate you thoughts.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:46 am |
  19. Peter

    Oh, no... poor protestants. I hope the rampant beheading of protestants stops soon or there wont be any left... oh, wait, you mean, protestants are doing just fine, no beheadings? Oh... forget I said anything.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:40 am |
  20. steve505

    I'd rather have the America's Most Wanted top 6 sitting on the Supreme Court than 6 Catholics........

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

      Ignorance is truely bliss in your little world, isn't it?

      May 19, 2010 at 12:18 pm |
    • BrianCNN

      Oh? So, you prefer atheists then?

      May 23, 2010 at 10:59 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.