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. HotDogInBuns

    Isn't it against regulations to hire or not hire based on religoun. WOW, take that to court, you failbloggers. Besides if Jesus were alive today, he would be Taliban. And that is our enemy right? lolz, fail again.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:16 am |
    • Tina

      I think I love you! 😀

      May 19, 2010 at 11:24 am |
  2. John

    You are also making the mistake many do by not recognizing that Baptists and free church believers are NOT protestant. Just because someone is not Catholic, Jewish, or atheist doesn't automatically make them protestant.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:16 am |
  3. Mike

    If it were up to me they would all be Catholics. The founders of Protestantism were Catholics! So if you're Protestant, you're more Catholic than you would ever know. Most of your beliefs are based on Catholic teachings and tradition. If you don't know this you're an idiot!

    May 19, 2010 at 11:16 am |
    • Elizabeth

      This is true. Protestants were orignilly Catholics.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:21 am |
  4. Kasey

    Not only do I agree that any discussion of religious diversity needs to include, at the very least, a mention of atheism, but I find the conclusions drawn in this article to be as offensive as they are incorrect. I am a Jew. I was raised as a Protestant. Despite their shared ancestry, the two faiths have almost nothing in common. Even when discussing big-deal questions like prayer or the role of God in our lives, let alone when trying to interpret and apply the Hebrew Bible (better known as the Old Testament), the conclusions are often diametrically opposed. Judaism – in particular liberal Judaism, which I believe more aptly describes the practices by the three aforementioned justices – tends to take a much less public approach to faith than any Protestant denomination I've ever seen or heard of, so when it comes to the questions likely to be decided by the Supreme Court, there would certainly be a difference. Judaism actually requires abortion in some circumstances, CCAR has been recognizing gay relationships since the early 90s, and on the whole we're pretty big on the separation of church and state. In what universe do any of those positions line up with either Catholics or Protestants as a whole? I believe when you said all 9 are Protestant, what you meant to say was "all 9 follow a mainstream religion that opposes stealing and murder."

    May 19, 2010 at 11:16 am |
  5. jane doe

    when sotomyor was nominated, she was gladly counted as the first hispanic. why cry foul when the jews are counted? what are people afriad of? over-representation of the jews? Duh!

    May 19, 2010 at 11:15 am |
  6. George

    What a fabulous argument for ending diversity in all forms. Turns out we don't need it because we're all the same anyway. What were we thinking?

    May 19, 2010 at 11:15 am |
  7. Robert

    I found this interesting- but all in all I do not think the justices will let faith alone affect their decisions or at least most justices. Most of the current justices rely on reasoning, evidence, and precedence. If Protestant thinking relies on choice and reasoning then these Justices are not bound to any tradition or allegiances that may conflict with the law or the constitution. They are not likely to be swayed by any priest or rabbi if they feel they can have a one on one conversation with god without any middle man.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:14 am |
  8. freedom 101

    The only fair supreme court judge, (or any judge in America), would be constitutionalist who puts their personal religious beliefs behind constitutional law. Religon should have no bearing on their decisions. If it does they should be removed from the bench.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:14 am |
  9. Patrick

    How about an athiest on the court. We tend to see the issues more rationally and aren't concerned what Rome, or Jerusalem, or some muslim country thinks. We at least try to go on facts when possible, and not worry about W.W.J.D.

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

      Atheists have no foundation in what is right or wrong since they deny God's existence. How can there be a right and wrong without God? Don't give me the line that society determines it, that didn't work so well for the Jews in Germany did it? Or the Armenians, American Indians, Tibetans, etc. When atheists speak of right and wrong they are honoring the God they try to deny since the standards of what is truly good can only come from God.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:19 am |
    • Howie

      John – you are a moron. Where do you think the idea of God came from? We made him up along with the supposed morals of which you speak. Further, the court is not about morality, but LAW. One's morals do not make one a good justice, all that is needed is the ability to interpret the law – not to decide if the law is good or not.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:22 am |
  10. Hank10303



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

      I'm thinking NO!

      May 19, 2010 at 11:23 am |
    • Howie

      Amen brother!

      May 19, 2010 at 12:04 pm |
    • Treat

      No, that's not what "separation of church and state" means.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:39 pm |
  11. Treat

    The "separation of church and state" means that the state shall not establish an official state religion, either explicitly or implicitly. That does not mean that we can't discuss the religious make-up of the SCOTUS, or allow ourselves to be guided politically by religious values. I'm an agnostic myself, and I have no problem with a person being sincerely guided by a sense of ethics that is grounded in their faith. I would have a problem with matters of religious dogma being shoved down my throat, but thankfully most people engaged in politics understand where their own church rules end and public laws begin. Americans would not accept laws requiring women not to cut their hair, for example, or forbidding the consumption of shellfish.

    Is it okay for the Supreme Court to have Catholics and Jews and no Protestants despite the fact that the nation is predominantly Protestant? The judicial branch is but one of the three major branches of the federal government. The executive branch has been overwhelmingly Protestant ever since the founding of the republic. There has been exactly one Catholic President, and he did not survive his term in office. No Jew has ever been elected President. So when you step back and look at the bigger picture, there is nothing particularly wrong about 1 branch of the government having more Catholics and Jews. And anyway, the SCOTUS is not a representative body meant to give an equal voice to each subculture, religion, or ethnicity in the U.S. Protestants don't deserve a seat any more than Hindus or Buddhists.

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

      Let me educate you. There are 68 million Catholics in the US. No other denomination is greater! To be Protestant is to be Lutheran, Prybyterians, Angelican, etc. So as a whole they're larger but if you're looking at each denomination then that's not the case.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:19 am |
    • Treat

      @ MIKE: I am looking at the Protestant-Catholic dichotomy in the way that it is ALWAYS discussed and in which it is discussed in this article. That is to say that all the separate sects that make up Protestantism are lumped together as "Protestants." Whether or not Catholics outnumber any individual Protestant group is immaterial. Catholics are a minority in the U.S., albeit a sizable one. There are roughly twice as many Protestants as Catholics in the U.S.

      Getting back to the point at hand, the President gets to appoint justices to the SCOTUS. I for one do not think the President has any obligation whatsoever to choose an appointee based on any concept of diversity. (That said, the choice of appointment made by a Black POTUS is itself an example of diversity in action. That seems to be unappreciated.) No particular group should expect to be represented per se. The expectation should be that the justices are fair and impartial to all citizens.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:51 am |
  12. Jennifer

    wow, that's sloppy math. the numbers are right, but the fact that you have people who don't believe in any faith analyzing how different the various systems of believe are between the faiths is ridiculous. No, catholics aren't the same as protestants, and Jews dont equal protestants, and Catholics don't equaly Jews – etc. They vote differently, believe differently, pray differently. Sloppy, uninformed reporting, but with this kind of content – it's also dangerous. It's a slippery slope where someone somewhere who has no idea what they're talking about but has a microphone to the masses starts making erroneous, declarative statements. All of a sudden, mantras (in place of truth) are adopted, and it becomes a mess. Do your homework, and be careful what you say. Your assessments are lazy and inaccurate.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:13 am |
  13. muldoon in ohio

    Instead of the religion of each justice, I'm a lot more concerned with what law school and legal background are represented on the supreme court. I really hate to think where the country would be headed of all these justices were Harvard educated and possessed the same legal bias toward business and politics. If that were the case, I wouldn't consider the court a true representation of Constitutional justice.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:13 am |
  14. Terry

    Although the solution is clearly a higher number of Protestants than zero, I'm not sure the total is nine. To use Jame's evaluation "the feelings, acts, and experiences" etc. the question is: who on the Court has the intrinsic Protestant plumb line that reflects both Weber's Protestant work ethic and De"Tocqueville's private group interests of productivity that can actually maintain the Protestant structure of our country? What was important about Protestantism in our government was not the religious faith, but the religious structure that assumed more power in the local organization than power in the upper eschelon.

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

    Huh? What about us atheist/agnostics? We're not represented at all!!

    May 19, 2010 at 11:10 am |
  16. Totinsky

    Diversity? Christians and the Jewish faith is what Spanish is for Latin, even if you were to add Islam in to play they are still all connected. If we truly want to be diverse, we will need much more representation ( Hinduism, and Buddhism) from other faiths and also add unaffiliated ( including atheist or agnostic) who some sources say form up to 16.1% of the population ( 2007 Pew Research Center).
    Although, we should all have a common goal, the way we approach that common goal can be influenced by our religious/non religious believes. People should totally keep track of that, having a high IQ doesn't necessarily translate to making wise decisions, there are many out there who truly let their faith take over their factual judgement, which is certainly dangerous if you add power to the equation.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:10 am |
  17. Mike

    Do yall really think these 9 people care about religion? I bet half of them are agnostic if not atheist, not unlike younger generations today who just say they're X religion without being a part of X religion whatsoever.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:08 am |
  18. Andrew

    this article does not have any importance at all. since we are talking about religions, are they only catholics, protestants and Judaism?!! aren't they also orthodox christianity/Judaism, there is islam,......!!

    May 19, 2010 at 11:07 am |
  19. Steve

    Interesting but I thought the people on the Supreme Court were all people. If they are qualified then they sit as a judge regardless if they are whatever religious background.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:04 am |
  20. Daryl

    I don't know about the math, but I was always taught that there was never to be a mix between church and state. I guess that was all just a smoke screen. To hell with the numbers you have there. What about agnostics? I guess we're just unamerican. Religion- the bloodiest judgment of all.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:04 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.