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

    Muslims on the Supreme Court? I wonder if the author could find 1 Muslim ruled country that promotes our American ideal of Freedom?

    May 19, 2010 at 10:50 am |
    • Marc Seltzer

      He's not aksing for a Muslim country to rule on the bench. There are like at least a million Americans who actively practice Islam (some of us in the closet), of which several are fully capable to rule judiciously on the Supreme Court.

      May 19, 2010 at 10:54 am |
    • bill

      Mark-Like I said...find 1 Muslim country where freedom and justice reign then I might agree. Remember, a little leaven spoils the entire batch.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:00 am |
    • derek

      1million muslim slime must be kick from america soil.

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

      Moslems do not have a statue of liberty in their country and they do not go about invading other countries on the pretext that their people do not have freedom and equality. If we are going to talk the talk, we have to walk the walk!!!!!!!

      May 19, 2010 at 11:13 am |
    • bill

      Mike – did you forget about 9/11...that was an invasion!

      May 19, 2010 at 11:34 am |
  2. beerndrums

    Instead of of 3 Jews,you should of inserted 3 stooges.LMMFAO!

    May 19, 2010 at 10:50 am |
  3. Pen

    who really cares, does this give this guy something to just yap about

    May 19, 2010 at 10:49 am |
  4. mfaphoto

    Most decisions have nothing to do with religion, but are decided on legal precedents and interpretation of the Constitution.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:49 am |
  5. bill

    The only fair Supreme Court would be if they're all entirely atheist.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:49 am |
  6. Henry Miller

    First, if it's true that "Eight Rival Religions" really do "Run the World," that's a scary thought. Religion is, at its core, irrational–that's why its called "faith"–and running anything irrationally strikes me as a really bad idea.

    Second, it will truly be a fabulous day in history when and if religion is relegated, if it's practised at all, to being the private acts and thoughts of individuals. The apparent determination of many religious people and groups to force their beliefs, or behaviour consonant with those beliefs, on everyone else has been one of the greatest sources of misery, destruction, and murder throughout history.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:49 am |
  7. Ken Brown

    I'm much more concerned about regional diversity than religious diversity. It seems the entire court now comes from a small (although quite populated) region of the country.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:49 am |
  8. meh

    I would like to know why the writer believes the court is somehow "flawed" with only Jewish and Catholic judges? ooh Roman Catholic... I think that was racist to some extent. Maybe Henry VIII got it wrong and things are correcting themselves from 1549..... And you are the same Protestants who have allowed God to be removed from having a basis on creation of our United States? While I find it fascinating from a few years ago when there were 6 Catholics with Roberts and Alito..... no one said much then. I think this was a horribly written article that served no purpose. How about an opinion from the angle "if Faith plays a role in Supreme Court decisions" – which I believe it will not because the majority of Protestants couldnt prevent God from being removed from most every part of our govenrnment, I am waiting for the complaints about the dollar saying "In God We Trust" – it doesnt say a Protestant God. We all beleive in a God and even Atheists believe in a society based on rules and morals. Maybe you can file a reverse discrimination lawsuit over the Supreme Court decision. I suppose the African American who is also Catholic doesnt work either. I am sorry, but your writing's are flawed on so many levels. The comment on the Court being like Protestants anyways..... read your Bible and if you want to split hairs – see which Churches were first. It is more likely that the Protestants were like Catholics minus the Pope. Bad article.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:48 am |
  9. Babbo

    What about separation between church and state?

    May 19, 2010 at 10:48 am |
  10. Loren, Chicago

    Prothero may be your religious writer but his equation of 6 Catholics plus 3 Jews equals 9 Protestants shows a fundamental lack of understanding of how religious faith is obtained in the United States. It is a rare person in the United States who chooses his faith as a matter of individua choice. As a preson who did not go to church unitl I was ten years old, there is a big difference between my thinking about reliigion and those who went to church as children. While he may think that not having any Protestants on the Court doesn't make a difference, it makes a big difference in their world views and their rulings (and if nothing else, the parochialism of their thinking, something that a fair number of Protestants, apparently contrary to Prothero's thinking, don't suffer from). He should be lamenting the lack of Protestants and it's waning influence, after all, it was Protestantism that was responsible for the advance of Democracy in the world and the creation of the Unted States. So maybe it's not suh a bad thing as Prothero sems to suggest.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:47 am |
  11. Seth

    I would be much happier if the entire system was setup more for Separation of Church and State.. However with the growing right-wing religious people in this country who believe that Jesus will be here tomorrow, they want to make sure they have all their pieces on the chessboard. The only way this country will ever allow an Atheist or Agnostic on the there is when we have a majority of the population (much like in northern eu) and we than can get people in there who will not fall back on religion for their rulings, sadly this wont be for a good 20-30 yrs...

    May 19, 2010 at 10:47 am |
  12. Tom

    JEN! True, why no atheists mentioned? Because atheism is not a religion and anyone NOT in a religion gets very little say in things. ANYWAY, yes this is ridiculous. Among many other reasons, one's religious/spiritual beliefs or lack there of beliefs are in a constant state of flux. All catholic SC judges have the right to convert to Judaism, right? Plus, ones religious beliefs, especially in politics and law are often a facade as with many people. (does swearing on a bible really mean much to MOST people?). The only thing that interests me is if a politician or SC judge says he or she does not believe in evolution and they firmly believe in Genesis and everything that follows as a guide to how the earth and human race has come to be. If so, they are completely delusional and NOT fit for office.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:47 am |
  13. Bill

    What is sad is that many of the people who say "it doesn't matter" would probably have conniptions if a Buddhist, Muslim, or (*GASP*) atheist were appointed to the court.

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

      SO TRUE. and how can people say it does not matter. One's belief system definitely can impact one's judgement.

      May 19, 2010 at 10:49 am |
    • Alabama

      I agree! I would much prefer the Muslim people be represented than the jews. And no, this was not sarcasm.

      May 19, 2010 at 10:50 am |
  14. Cortney

    and good point Bill

    May 19, 2010 at 10:47 am |
  15. Alabama

    I never thought the jews thought anything like a Christian. From what I've noticed of them, they stick together better than any race (that is correct, race not religion).

    May 19, 2010 at 10:46 am |
    • Marc Seltzer

      Let's not turn this into a hate forum. But yes, you do have a point. You have to belong to the race to truly be a Jew – which in my book defies logic. In Islam, it's all merit based if you want to make to Paradise.

      May 19, 2010 at 10:51 am |
    • meh

      actually we follow and respect the Jews beliefs – they are in the Old Testament that most Christians still refer too... If Jewish people were not part of our Christian faith then why did they even include the Old Testament. I am sorry – but this is just so ignorant. It is sad. I think the Jewish people do stay together but not because of race – they mostly have followed in the tradition of their faith from thousands of years ago.... how do you remain Jewish and not believe in the Old Testament? Their "race" is based on their religion. I think. Are there any Jewish people out there that are not Jewish?? :0

      May 19, 2010 at 11:02 am |
    • Seth

      @Meh The Jewish people picked the OT because it's also known as the Torah, remember Jewish, Christian and Muslim all come from the same branch no matter how other people love to try and spend it (such as trying to proclaim that they are in deed different Gods...)

      May 19, 2010 at 11:26 am |
    • meh

      @seth I think we are on the same page- at least that was the point I was trying to make! Christians read from the Torah.. When I said "they" picked it – I was referring to the Apostles and scholars in the Early Catholic Church that included the Old Testament ie The Torah in our same Bible. But thank you for not stoning me and asking for clarification. 🙂 It just amazes me that Christians have such views about the Jewish faith – yet we read from the Torah a lot of the time. Almost like saying to be a true Christian, lets create a new religion and not use the Old Testament – its the Torah.... said sarcastically!! But the point is people miss the point of the entire story when they pick and choose what to include in their beliefs. I still say ignorance.... not you or me, of course.. 🙂 It is the narrow minded thinking of the poster that contributes to fighting for something they know nothing about in "the name of religion". That is meant in a nice and honest way to all religions and really any human being(trying to include the Atheists :)).

      May 19, 2010 at 11:41 am |
    • Seth

      @meh haha ok, and yea I dislike when they try and cherry pick the good parts. Many new far right evangelical religious people try to toss out the OT by saying it is no longer valid, which can easily be refuted by even quoting their famous Jesus in the NT regarding the old laws.. I find it funny but oh well the way we have things in America right now it's either we are goinga improve or just fall apart...

      May 19, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
  16. Eric

    Anything that smacks of the Pope scares me. Yes, a few protestants on the bench would be A-ok with me...

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

      You are a Protestant thinking like you're living in the 1920s. Gone are the days when Protestants used to ostracized and oppressed Catholics in the US calling them "papists."

      May 19, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
    • meh

      I think we are also called carnivores. Actually, I think the most recent Book of Common Prayer- out today – still refers to Catholics as Papists and Carnivores. Check the reference notes in the back..... so really we are not much different than the 1920's.

      May 19, 2010 at 6:47 pm |
  17. Cortney

    And what about the Buddhist or even Muslim for that matter? Why not, not like they do not live in this country and are as American as any Catholic? just wondering what the big deal is especially when the majority of the country is not Catholic.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:46 am |
  18. Marc Carbone

    The number of Jews is equal to the number of Mulsims in the states. Imagine the uproar if three Supreme Court Judges was Muslim.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:46 am |
  19. Glenn

    Huh? Jews, Catholics and Protestants are all the same? Really. I think I will enroll my daughter at Torah camp this summer and see how that goes. What the author is really saying is that he'd like to see "diversity" in the form of muslims, bhuddists and, maybe atheists, on the court. Did it occur to anyone that most lawyers are Protestants, Catholics and Jews? That's why these religions dominate the court. Why not have a quota system? Then we can include mormans (yea, legalized polygomy!), branch davidians, and every imaginable sect.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:46 am |
    • Marc Carbone

      As a Muslim, I'm inclined to agree with your Sarcasm.

      May 19, 2010 at 10:47 am |
  20. jessica

    I have never seen a Redneck finishing College or High School...that is the reason we don't have many Protestants as lawyers or judges...!!..most lawyers are either jews or catholics...!

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

      My thoughts exactly!

      May 20, 2010 at 3:01 pm |
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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.