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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. O

    I thought the Supreme Court was supposed to be apolitical and non-religious? But in reality it does not seem so because you have either a Republican or Democratic president appointing them, and we are having this discussion about their personal religion. Who cares whether they are a Catholic or a Jew or a Protestant. What we should care about is whether they will uphold the case law or make up their own.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:04 am |
  2. DS

    Why does CNN even give coverage for such an article. We truly need separation of religion from everything else. Religion is a very personal matter and should be promoted as such. I would encourage CNN to drop this article from its site. If the author wants to publish it on his own website or blog, it is perfectly fine as I also believe in freedom of speech as long as it does not infringe on other people's rights.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:04 am |
  3. Nobs

    What'a about a Muslim in the Supreme Court?

    May 19, 2010 at 11:04 am |
  4. Mike

    I hope they have the Mayflower well preserved somewhere. We will need it back very soon, to migrate back to Europe to avoid religious prosecution in America!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    May 19, 2010 at 11:04 am |
  5. Jack Rothenberger

    How mny inquistions, wars, etc. were started by the athiests.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:04 am |
  6. Jay

    You know, I don't think it really makes a difference what they are. An incredibly large segment of out population identifies itself as a member of a particular religion, but doesn't really participate. You know, the "Christmas and Weddings" crowd. I'm pretty sure that portion of the population is pretty close to a majority. I would bet if you extrapolate that to our political and judicial leadership that trend probably sticks. They just can't appear like that to the voting populace or someone else (who very well may be of the same type) will try to use that against them. So... who cares.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:03 am |
    • Ann

      Even those who actually go to church regularly aren't necessarily sincere. When I was still active in our church musical group, we used to call them 'Sunday-morning Catholics' – the ones who sang the loudest, shook the most hands, and looked ever-so-pious while going up for communion - then, went back to their regular lives as hateful, snobby, greedy slimebags. One I remember most (a neighbor who was particularly rude to my parents) wore a BLACK taffeta wedding gown to her wedding – her 4th, his 5th. I'm sure they made enough donations to get annulments for all their other weddings – interesting, though, they had about 10 kids between them. Ugh.

      The hypocrisy I saw every week was part of what started me on the road to becoming an agnostic.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:37 am |
  7. Eric

    Can you say STAGED! How convenient to have it happen this way, to not have a single Protestant on the court. Kind of uncanny how that happened in conjuction with the removal of the National Day of Prayer. I knew this was going to happen if Obama got in, that's why I didn't vote for him. THANKS PEOPLE FOR DOING THIS TO OUR COUNTRY! VOTE RIGHT OR DON"T DO IT AT ALL!

    May 19, 2010 at 11:03 am |
  8. Zach

    Who gives a crap how many protestants , it is the Supreme court not a religious gathering

    May 19, 2010 at 11:03 am |
  9. Mike

    CNN's TV ratings are apparently affecting everything. What is this piece about??? Who even cares what the religion of each justice is??? Why would anyone care?? Members of the Supreme Court are selected for their legal knowledge and legal abilities. I am pretty sure that there is no religious litmus test here. In case you haven't been paying attention, the entire world is experiencing a financial meltdown and THIS is what is news to you??? I want to say that I'm shocked but it's just another way to create a disturbance where in this case there is NONE!

    May 19, 2010 at 11:02 am |
  10. Hello

    Why do people still believe in this fairytale bull...? Start thinking for yourself and not let others tell you what to believe. Religion is for sheep

    May 19, 2010 at 11:02 am |
  11. Will

    if you were to ask my US. Govt. professor he would tell you he thinks we should make christianity our official country religion. What happened to being a free country, isn't that why America is made up of so many nationalities? Because we are free to practice any religion we see fit. I understand that our founding fathers wrote the D&E and the Constitution with christianity in mind but at the time that is what the colonists were, christians. Seperate church and state...that is the only way we can continue to be a "free" society.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:02 am |
  12. Chad

    Greg S.: From Wikipedia: (Thomas) later attended an Episcopal church with his first wife but returned to the Catholic Church in the late 1990s.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:02 am |
  13. Stan

    I will repeat what bill said:

    Only 22% of Americans are Catholic, yet they're almost 60% of the Supreme Court. And less than 3% of the population is Jewish, yet they're almost 30% of the Supreme Court. To put it bluntly... so f'd up!!!

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

      if you guys are going to keep quoting this guy, somebody needs to correct him.

      3/9 = 33.3%
      30% < 33.3%
      "Almost 30%" ≠ "More than 30%"

      May 19, 2010 at 11:14 am |
    • pb

      Are you against Jews and Catholics being on the Supreme Court? It's no big deal. For years and years, everyone on the Court was Protestant except for an occasional Jewish guy. Catholics in America are not that diiferent from everyone else, as many posters on this blog have tried to say.

      May 19, 2010 at 1:37 pm |
  14. Scott

    What disturbs me the most isn't the catholics or jews or lack of protestants, muslims, hindus, buddists, etc... Its the lack of a single Atheist. Atheists make up almost 20% of the population and most of them occupy positions that required a great deal of education (especially in the sciences). Atheists tend to make their decisions based on the science (or law) and not based on their emotional or spirtual outlook. That no judge on the supreme court can claim 'religious neutrality', is very disturbing.

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

      1. Science does not equal law in the American legal system sense.
      2. Everybody makes decisions based on science, through personal experience and understanding, not just atheists.
      3. No atheist can claim religious neutrality either, as evidenced by each and every atheist poster on here claiming the superiority of the atheist outlook – it is that reason why it is dangerous thus far to have an atheist on the supreme court. Of the possible candidates, their lack of tolerance of any religious group combined with their insistence on just how 'right' they are causes them to be impossible to deal with in a society trying to create a balance for all.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:12 am |
  15. trick

    Very ignorant article. This is not news, it isn't even a well-thought out opinion piece. More like the ramblings of an uninformed dope.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:01 am |
  16. NatCit

    Know why conservative judges always rule in direction that later generations frown upon (think women rights of 1900's, civil rights 1960's)?

    Their personal religiosity makes them thank God for getting that SC appointment, and they take it as a sign from God to usher in their own religious agenda. Liberals judges are less influenced by such banal agendas.

    Interestingly, there is a common thread with religiously motivated terrorists – they too believe that God has tasked them to save their kind from 'atrocities' or 'spread the word.'

    Both are delusional, and harm society in different ways. One beats us back in time, the other kills innocents.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:00 am |
  17. Bill

    Why not Atheists or Non-theists as there are more of them than almost any other belief. Not to sound anti-semitic, but Jews are disproportionately represented for certain.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:00 am |
  18. Jessica

    Im betting angry catholics, protestants and jews are screaming WE ARE NOT THE SAME! Just because we all hate muslims, doesnt make us the same!!!!

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

      Jessica. Speak for yourself. I am a protestant and I have a few muslim friends whom I love.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:19 am |
  19. Gary D.

    Why should their religion matter at all? They're EXPECTED to be without bias.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:00 am |
  20. Rob

    For those of you spouting that this isn't news, well... it isn't! Check the top of the page. This is a blog and is no different than any other editorial or opinion piece.

    The only purpose of this is to initiate discussion about the religious diversity in the Supreme Court. See it for what it is.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:00 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.