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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. John

    And a Jurist's religious orientation is important to their job why?

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

      Here's why. If the judge believes the Catholic view that human life begins at conception, rather than the Protestant traditional view that life begins at birth when the "breath of life" enters the child, the judge may consider his view when deciding cases involving abortion. If a person's religious belief is that Genesis is literally true and that god created the world in 7 days, then the judge may be inclined to allow "creationist" views to be taught in school alongside scientific views about the origins of the universe. If a person's religious belief is that the Pope is special in some way he/she may be unwilling to force the Pope to give testimony about sexual molestation. If a person believes that (in accordance with church teaching) that gay sex is wrong or immoral, that judge may be unwilling to overthrow state prohibitions against same sex marriage.

      In short, if you don't understand why a person's religious beliefs are important to the position of judge of the Supreme Court you don't understand the issues.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:47 pm |
  2. kevin

    In general, it's scary to have religious supreme court justices. Someone tell me the first time we get a reason-first non-theist on the bench–then we'll have a story.

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

      I don't think anyone is implying that the current court consists of 9 "practicing religonists". While Scalia and Thomas are pretty public about their faith, it's pretty much unknown how much influence faith has for most of the SCOTUS. Identifying oneself as "Protestant", "Catholic" or "Jewish" doesn't reveal much about how strongly one is influenced by that association.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:17 am |
  3. Chad

    Ideally the court should be required to be staffed by all atheists. That way religious decisions could be made from a neutral perspective with the idea of separation of church and state in mind.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:59 am |
    • Ben

      You want to disqualify someone because they believe in god? How tolerant of you.

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

      Nearly every religious person I know feels like their religion (even if its the dominant one like the protestants ) always feels that the separation of church and state is there to hurt their religion. When in fact they are the ones who always see the greatest benefit from it. And of course I wouldn't want to disqualify someone based on their religion. Re-read my post. I said ideally, which means under that particular situation it would be good. But then we couldn't go and have a special supreme court to decide other issues like all non gun owners deciding the second amendment.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:07 am |
  4. Dan

    Another move by Obama to stab muslims in the back. Bush was man enough to be upfront about his war against muslims.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:59 am |
  5. Greg S.

    Much has been reported about there being no Protestants currently on the US Supreme Court.
    HOWEVER, I am quite sure that even though Justice Thomas was baptized and raised a Roman Catholic, and studied briefly in a minor seminary for the priesthood, he has been a practicing Episcopilan for many years now. That makes Justice Tomas a PROTESTANT: therefore the current US Supreme Court does in fact have a Protestant on it !!!

    May 19, 2010 at 10:59 am |
  6. Iowa

    The only way we're going to have a real seperation of church and state is if the supreme court was filled with atheists and agnostics!!!! The ONLY way.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:57 am |
  7. pathguy

    0 budhist, 0 muslim, 0 gay christian, 0 asian american, 0 mexican american,..... gimme a break. what happened to the separation of church and state?

    May 19, 2010 at 10:56 am |
  8. slov

    I don't see a great call for agnostic or atheist. This country is mucked in religious doctrine and belief.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:55 am |
  9. Believer

    It seems to me that the Supreme Court members ARE keeping their religion out of their decisions. Take the 6 Catholics justices – we know the stand the Roman Catholic church takes regarding the abortion issue and yet this debate still continues. I would like to know if they are practicing Jews and Catholics. A person's faith or lack of it can never be seperated from a person's thought process or heart feeling if they are honest with themselves.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:55 am |
  10. Jeff

    Since you state that the Jewish/Catholic/Protestant mix doesn’t really matter, I am sure that you would be fine with 0 Catholics + 0 Jews + 9 Protestants ... right??? FAT CHANCE!

    May 19, 2010 at 10:55 am |
    • meh

      I believe there was a time when such a breakout existed – I dont recall reading about any Catholics protesting. The nation had issue with a Catholic president hundreds of years after the creation of the UNITED States of America.... If you are trying to say most anyone will be unhappy with the brreakdown of the religious affiliation – then yes – someone will find issue with something – and I agree everyone will whine.

      May 19, 2010 at 3:56 pm |
  11. Lin McKay

    I am a Catholic but I do not like the breakdown of the religious affliliation of the U.S. Supreme Court.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:54 am |
  12. KM

    Stephen Prothero needs to dig a little deeper into his Presidential religious facts. Not all (minus Kennedy) were Protestant in the 18th and 19th century. It may surprise you how much history has rewritten itself.

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

      Well if you go back far enough, many people will discover that Thomas Jefferson was a Deist, not a Theist.. OH MY SHOCK!!!

      May 19, 2010 at 10:55 am |
  13. Rob Totten

    Now if we can only get rid of the Catholics.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:54 am |
    • Futbol Czarina

      Seriously? What do you propose, aliens? Grow up and broaden your viewpoint.

      May 22, 2010 at 3:34 pm |
  14. Halliburtontosis

    Send a message to CNN, and STOP responding to stupid articles just to see your words appear on a website. THEY want you to feel like people care to hear your opinion... who actually does? Waste of time. I can't believe I'm even typing this now, but I still hold hopes that actual news (without "sound-off") may be available hear.

    Religious Scholar? That's the problem right there. Those words contradict each other. I'm a Science Fiction Scholar!!! Can I voice my opinion on why their aren't enough Martians on the SC???

    May 19, 2010 at 10:53 am |
  15. Dave

    No, we don't need religious diversity at all.

    They are judges. They should decide based on the law. Their faith, if they have any, shouldn't enter in to it at all.

    Kinda like how our politicians should be acting...

    May 19, 2010 at 10:53 am |
  16. MIke

    A few agnostics and atheists would be in keeping with the writers of the constitution. What the heck happened to separation of Church and State?

    May 19, 2010 at 10:53 am |
  17. PK

    So what? Justices are supposed to apply the laws, not their own faith or personal opinions. If we select the right people, they will do just that!

    May 19, 2010 at 10:52 am |
    • Seth

      Not always true, many will go with moral objections due to religious motivations. So sure they SHOULD go with the way the law is and not with faith or personal opinions, but it won't happen.....

      May 19, 2010 at 10:53 am |
  18. JC

    I am turn apart! There are not Muslims and not one single agnostic!

    May 19, 2010 at 10:52 am |
  19. Beefcake

    This article is worthless.

    If he is right then what about buddhists, they are also misrepresented. Not to mention eastern orthodox, atheists, mormons, christian scientists... there is a thousand more out there!

    If you want to be fair you need like a 500 ppl supreme court, that's crazy.

    May 19, 2010 at 10:51 am |
  20. Chris

    This is the problem with you Americans. You bring religious views into every freakin topic.

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

      of course we bring in religion into topics such as this... it's about religion in the frakin first place!

      May 19, 2010 at 10:52 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.