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. Michael

    The United States continues to portray itself as a theocracy simply because questions about the religious affiliations of justices seem meaningful to Americans – rather than the judicial record of said justices.

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

    How offensive to the Catholics on the court – if you don't know the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant then you need to do a little reading of history/theology. Just because one has an open mind, does not make one a Protestant. You would know that if you had any idea what the theological differences are between Christian communities. I may be a lapsed Catholic, but I am still certainly Catholic.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:24 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Yeah trying going to Northern Ireland and telling them they are both the same.......and good luck getting out with your life.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:25 am |
  3. Mack

    Am I the only one who find it rather ironic that all of these "eminent deciders" believe in something with no factual evidence? (Religion) These people are shown to be less logical and fallable if they choose to believe something based on "faith" and not reason, logic, and fact. That right there, is downright disturbing to me.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:24 am |
    • meh

      I normally respect what Atheists believe and unlike others – I believe Atheists do believe in a moral code of some sort-– but it is the age old argument – You cant prove God doesnt exist. Based on scientific evidence, we all believed the Earth was flat.... So while I have no problem with your opinions, or religion or whatever- you are an elitist from a textbook standpoint. Which is why you shouldnt attempt to attack religion based on scientific evidence. Faith has a definition in the dictionary.... I just think you are defending your choice from an illogical statement. Can we see protons and neutrons? Please disregard my ignorance. Also, even science requires some "faith" as a basis. How did we decide 0 is worth 0. Can you please show me proof that 0 really is 0. Thanks! I would love to read the studies on how it was determined that 1 or 2 are not the real 0. I am sorry – I just must be not scientific enough to understand. SO does tha mean I dont exist? seriously....are you kidding..

      May 19, 2010 at 12:21 pm |
  4. Jack S.

    What happened to the Wasps?
    A) went to Wall Street where the pay and perks are better than in government service.
    B) stopped having kids like much of Western Europe.
    C) moved offshore to some distant tax haven.
    D) lost the faith and joined the Tea Party movement or some other anti-government extremist group.

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

      E) Got lazy and partied away their potential while some Catholic and Jewish kids kept their noses in law books and wound up on the Supreme Court.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:36 am |
  5. Patrick

    People are so concerned about how many of this religion or that one we have on the court. there are other groups, other schools of thought . How about representation for those of us who don't believe in the " GREAT CREATION MYTH ".

    May 19, 2010 at 11:22 am |
  6. JW

    They are not Catholics, if they were, abortion would be banned. If Jesus was their Saviour, they would stop the killings. BTW, the Ftaher killed Jesus by a plan. Jesus said he had the authority given him to take his life on the cross.
    That is why he commended his spirit to leave. For it pleased the father to bruise him, in order to save us. Yes ALL sins of ALL people needed a sacrifice, but God chose to provide it.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:22 am |
    • sam

      Women are not incubators and your belief in a man who never existed will not change that. How messed up are you? To believe that women must follow the "teachings" of something that destroys their real freedom!

      May 19, 2010 at 12:00 pm |
  7. fingaz

    I don't understand why it matters what religion they are!

    May 19, 2010 at 11:21 am |
  8. RAFritz

    I don't understand why this headline horrifies so many people. I agree that it would be great to have other faiths–and, yes, nonfaiths–represented on the SCOTUS. The religion of the Justices shouldn't matter, but it does, especially given what Catholic doctrine says about issues such as abortion. Luckily for this country, they don't generally parrot the party line of their church. And who knows for sure what the Justices really believe? Calling yourself a member of a given church does not necessarily mean you believe in it. Do you think an uncloseted atheist would ever make it through the selection procedure, given the ignorance of many Americans?

    May 19, 2010 at 11:21 am |
  9. Jilli

    Where's the Athiests?

    Their religious beliefs should not be pertinent. They are there to rule based on laws, not the bible or whatever other nonsensical texts religions use.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:21 am |
  10. Burt

    I don't care if the justices on the court pray to the Greek Gods. Who give's a rat's behind what version of God these people believe in? It's all make believe. Here we are arguing over what version of the Magic Man in the sky the highest lawmakers in the land believe in. Let's continue to devolve...shall we?????

    May 19, 2010 at 11:21 am |
  11. fingaz

    I don't understand why it matters what religion they are!?!?

    May 19, 2010 at 11:21 am |
  12. freedom 101

    Athiests represent such an insignificant percentage of the population, and probably will for the foreseable future, that it may be decades at a minimum before congress would approve one for SCOTUS. What is most important is that the judge puts his/her religious belief in the back seat to constitutional law.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:21 am |
  13. Charlie D

    The Supreme Court is representative of the people whom get elected into office in this country. The Northeast part of the US has a high percentage of Catholics and Jews. Currently, the Northeast is running the whole US government. States like New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Conn, Mass, etc are making all the rules. Harvard, Yale, Princeston, MIT graduates are getting the key jobs in the government.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:19 am |
  14. Brian

    Wait! Who cares!! Isn't the government suppose to be separate!! Actually the reason they think like a Protestants is because from what you described in this article they fit the mold of how America was founded. The separation between church and state is designed to give religious freedom and freedom means you have faith in whatever you choose in the privacy of your home. Religion can't be "community driven" if most of the community isn't even the same religion! So stop with the "religious diversity" crap!!

    May 19, 2010 at 11:19 am |
  15. Wesley Pittman

    It is a shame that our country has fallen to this where there is no "Protestant" on the court. However, it was the Jews that had Jesus put on the cross, however He went to the cross willingly to pay for the sins of the whole world. It was the Catholics that put to death anyone that did not want to follow their religion. I don't follow any religious person or religious following, but Jesus Christ who is the Son of the Living God. One day people will stand before the SUPREME COURT OF THE WHOLE WORLD, Jesus Christ and the Jury is the Holy Ghost and the Law is the Bible and the Record is the Book of Life. Is your name written in here? It is time for us to stand on our own two feet and thunder forth the blessed good news that Jesus Christ saves all those that call upon Him.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:18 am |
    • Robert Bauer

      My dear Mr. Pittman. Your level of ignorance and self-delusion is so great even an acerbic jerk like me has difficulty finding just the right insult to hurl in your direction. Just about every disgusting facet of human thought from racism and bigotry, to outright fraud is present in your post. If and when this god of yours comes to judge the world, I hope I'm standing far away from you. I wouldn't want to be the victim of collateral damage from the lightening bolt that will be intended for you.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:30 am |
  16. Elizabeth

    I'm not sure that the religious views of these judges really are playing a role in their position. I really wish it did...because that means that if those supposed 6 Catholics were REALLY Catholic Roe vs. Wade would already be reversed. If they really practiced their faith they would end abortion. So, all I really have to say is that if they claim to be Catholic they need to prove it. End abortion once and for all. Everyone has the right to life, even cute, innocent little babies. It's considered murder if I were to kill my unwanted neighbor, so how can you justify killing an innocent child because you don't want them??? There are other options...give them up for adoption, let them have a chance at life, and there are so many couples who want to be parents and can't have children of their own. I didn't mean to go off on this...but once I started I felt this needed to be said. I am not trying to offend anyone, just stand up for those who can't stand up for themselves.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:18 am |
    • Ann

      I hope you're against capital punishment, too. Thou Shalt Not Kill was not followed by an asterisk, with conditions listed below.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:42 am |
    • Tina

      Spiritual beliefs are (and should be) private. The judges should never rule on Supreme Court cases according to private religious rules–whether that be that abortion is wrong, or that it should be illegal for you to work on Shabbat. Sounds unfair and silly when you put it that way, doesn't it.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:54 am |
  17. Sammy

    The American currency "IN GOD WE TRUST" so where will non "God" believers fit in judgment? will they play hypocrisy, and live off the their daily life enjoying the American dollar while judging as there is no God?

    May 19, 2010 at 11:18 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Sorry, are you suggesting money comes from god?
      What exactly are you trying to say here?

      May 19, 2010 at 11:22 am |
    • Seth

      Do you even know WHY the "IN GOD WE TRUST" was added ? Do you also know ANYTHING about our founding fathers?

      May 19, 2010 at 11:31 am |
  18. Olufsen

    Here is the bigger question. Where are the Atheists !?

    May 19, 2010 at 11:17 am |
  19. Cedar Rapids

    I would love to see a muslim judge nominated.
    Can you imagine the uproar?
    People would be running around like headless chickens, claiming it was the slippery slope to sharia law or something.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:17 am |
  20. jane doe

    why do you folks suppose the pedophiles in catholic church have been thriving with impunity all those years? that has nothing to do with GOD but everything to do with the catholic church elites' power.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:17 am |
    • meh

      the same reason the Boy Scouts just paid out a record settlement. Any faith or human is capable of being a pedophile. A pedophile simply determines where he can exert control over children.

      Boy Scout Leaders = non-Catholics because if they were Catholics they would be priests??

      I love sarcasm.....

      May 19, 2010 at 12:07 pm |
    • Sand

      Oh yeah! all pedophiles are Catholic priests.......duh!!!!!!

      May 20, 2010 at 6:12 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.