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. Richard Aberdeen

    Oh, and the one responder who said we should have nine atheists on the Supreme Court. Apparently he wouldn't mind living under Mussolini, who was an avowed atheist. I have rarely met an atheist who is less naive than a grade school child, at best.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:32 am |
    • Daryn Guarino

      Says the man that believes in an imaginary invisible sky daddy.

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

      While you pray to the Easter Bunny, I will use my better than second grade education to ponder Quantum Physics.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:50 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      'I have rarely met an atheist who is less naive than a grade school child, at best.'
      LOL, I love posts like this.
      Oh please do give us examples of the grade school child naiviety you are alluding to.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:09 pm |
  2. jojo2

    Well separation of Church and State can not separate your beliefs from your life and job. If you a immoral person or a Moral person thats the life you live our. You're either Controlled by Satan or the God of the Bible.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:32 am |
    • Howie

      I will choose free will – I'm not controlled by any fictional creature thank you very much!

      May 19, 2010 at 11:48 am |
  3. Howie

    This article was written by a fictional creature – 'Religious Scholar' HA – to have religion, one must leave scholarship at the door. Any scholarly pursuit immediately leads to the certain knowledge that there is no GOD.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:32 am |
  4. Ghandi

    Why does it matter.....the world ends in less than 2 years!!!!

    May 19, 2010 at 11:31 am |
    • V. Cooper

      umm the world is not gonna end in two years...read the bible it says that NO MAN KNOWS WHAT TIME AND DATE THAT JESUS IS COMING BACK...KING JAMES VERSION PLEASE IT'LL TELL YOU

      May 19, 2010 at 11:35 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Bit whishy washy with his time keeping is he? Well I will give him 5 more minutes but then I am getting on with my life, I cant hang around here all day.

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

      @ V Cooper......

      now according to my Catholic bible – how is it that you know for a fact that isnt the correct date.... if no one knows. Plus this is according to a Mayan calendar not any Bible. I plan to say my final prayers and reconciliation on December 20, 2012 – just in case. haha Then lets all agree to fnd each other in the afterlife and see who was right..... said oh so sarcastically.... We dont have enough problems in out world, lets fight about some things that occur after we die. I get the idea of where you are coming from – but I interpret it to mean – If you believe in God, man is lower than God and God knows all. If you dont believe in God, then you dont haveany scientific proof whether the world will end or not.

      I am sorry – I just see this entire webpage as chasing our tails in a circle and when we stop – we will still be standing in the same exact place. So lets figure out how to work together to get somewhere instead of arguing in this constant and unending circles. The definition of insanity – Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. I apologize I dont know who to credit this saying with.... Einstein? I am not sure. But it makes sense to me, so does it really matter who said it first and why. We could disagree on the how the quote came about for a million years – and we miss the whole point of the message. imo

      May 19, 2010 at 12:59 pm |
  5. Wake-Up

    America was not founded on any other religion. Why would we want a religion that does not represent our beliefs and culture? It is best said like this:
    Theodore Roosevelt's ideas on Immigrants and being an AMERICAN in 1907.

    "In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the person's becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American ... There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag ... We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language ... and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people."

    Theodore Roosevelt 1907

    May 19, 2010 at 11:31 am |
    • Howie

      And, that one loyalty to the American people precludes loyalty to any church or god. Any true American must be an Atheist.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:34 am |
    • Wake-Up

      Howdie: How do you figure it is atheist? Re-read your history book. Look at your money "IN GOD We Trust" One nation under God. Shall I go on..

      May 19, 2010 at 11:38 am |
    • Howie

      I am simply referring to the quote you posted. If you have religion, you have loyalty to your god and your church. Mr. Roosevelt's quote is clear – this loyalty precludes being an American.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:42 am |
    • Daryn Guarino

      Our founders were diests and were very concerned about what religion might do to a country which is why they wanted the church split away from the state. "In god we trust" was added to money in 1957. "One nation under god" was forced into the Pledge of Allegiance in1955. The United States was founded in 1776. Learn the history before you display further ignorance.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:45 am |
  6. benjammin'

    And the point of this article is...?
    Those of us who have seen what organized religions have foisted on this world and have decided that NO organized religion is best are not represented on the SCOTUS either.
    Yes, i read the article, and yes i am responding.....but as the proponents of organized religion continue to try and convince the world that their way is THE way, adherents to some form of organized religion continue to rain destruction and mayhem on "non-believers".
    What is the point of your beliefs?
    And your proof is...?

    May 19, 2010 at 11:30 am |
  7. Darryl

    Don't forget a Mormon! We'll protest if need be!

    May 19, 2010 at 11:30 am |
  8. yeah right

    Prothero seems to be ignoring the fact that several of those RC justices are conservatives who were appointed by Republican presidents in the hope that they would help cripple or overturn Roe v. Wade. That hardly equates to "Protestant" thinking.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:29 am |
  9. V. Cooper

    If im not mistaken according to history, isn't the religions that are not catholics protestants? Because thats what i've learned in history class that contain religion and also my church...so i'm lost completely

    May 19, 2010 at 11:29 am |
  10. Richard Aberdeen

    Well, maybe if a Protestant like Martin Luther King, Jr. was on the court, that would be a good thing. But, given the human rights track records of most Protestants today, perhaps it would be wise of Obama to leave them out. Not that the current cut-throat nine have done we the people any favors of late, but I can't see where replacing one of these corporate-butt kissers with a Protestant would likely be much of an improvement.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:29 am |
  11. Mike

    As far as the Atheists – keep depending on Science to answer all your questions.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:28 am |
    • Seth

      Ok we will allow Science with the process of peer-reviewed scientific information, fact checking and being supported by Real evidence and not a Book written by nomads a few thousands of years ago....

      May 19, 2010 at 11:30 am |
    • Mike

      Yeah, that's pretty much how it works.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:31 am |
    • Mike

      Keep searching my friend..

      May 19, 2010 at 11:32 am |
    • Seth

      Many questions have already been answered with scientific evidence which in turn removes many beliefs that some far religious people may have (such as the earth being 6k yrs old... if you really buy this 4004 BC crap then I also hope that their gene pool stops reproducing to stop the frakin ignorance in this country..)

      May 19, 2010 at 11:35 am |
    • Mike

      What's the sense in argueing with an Athiest. I have so many reasons to believe. It's a shame you don't.

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

      Yes I can say the same to you as well, however we are just 2 different people so let's just agree upon that =)

      May 19, 2010 at 11:49 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      'I have so many reasons to believe'
      No you don't, you just have one reason you believe answers everything, huge difference.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:03 pm |
  12. Rick McDaniel

    No, you were right in the first place......there are zero protestants on the Court. What is extremely dangerous, is that the majority on the court, are from a single religion. That allows for a religion to have total control of the court's decisions, and that, my friend, is a dangerous place to be.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:28 am |
  13. no moonbats

    Religious beliefs do not matter...but it is important to get a "diversity" of religions on the Supreme Court. Other than Protestant, of which we currently have none.
    ...ah, the liberal mind at work.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:27 am |
  14. John

    Mack – I'll bet you're the captain of your think tank. I'm on my lunch hour, what's your excuse for being on-line on a work day? Turn your screen off at night, as the working class is paying your bills.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:27 am |
  15. Nighthhaaawk

    What does any of this religion stuff have to do with being qualified for the supreme court?? Religious quotas are as inane as quotas for ANY job! It;s just plane nuts to choose someone over a qualified individual because of ANY factor other than being qualified for the job!!!

    May 19, 2010 at 11:27 am |
  16. Philip

    Another completely pointless and useless article to grace CNN's main page. I scrolled down after the first few lines.
    Let's see if Foxnews can top this?

    May 19, 2010 at 11:26 am |
  17. Mike

    Let me educate all of you. There are 68 million Catholics in the US. No other denomination is greater! To be Protestant is to be Lutheran, Prybyterians, Angelican, Baptist etc. So as a whole Protestants are larger but if you're looking at each denomination then that's not the case. During the reformation period in the 1500's any denomination who opposed the Catholic church were said to be in PROTEST of the church. Hence the term Protestant. So if you're Protestant, you're more Catholic than you know.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:25 am |
    • V. Cooper

      ok so if you're protestant, how are you catholic as well?? thats contradicting your statement either ur catholic or not

      May 19, 2010 at 11:32 am |
    • Mike

      My friend you're not very smart. My point is, it's stupid to be so against a religion that helped shape your beliefs and/or traditions. You completely missed my point.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:35 am |
    • Jim

      Let me also help – if your "protestant" church has services on Sunday rather than the original sabbath day which is Saturday, you're following the Catholic Church's declaration byt the Pope in the 5th century that the day Christ rose is the new sabbath day. And that's just the tip of the iceberg on how "catholic" protestants are.

      May 19, 2010 at 11:46 am |
    • kryg

      Jim: Where did you get that Sunday as the day of the Lord began on the 5th cent? Show me your basis.

      May 19, 2010 at 12:49 pm |
    • Jim

      Didn't they teach you right in RCIA? Pope Gregory I in 570 settled the matter which up until that time was not consistently followed. Look up the rest yourself, and like I said crack open that Catechism book (it's a Catholic Baltimore version, right?)

      May 19, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
  18. Johnson Bronson

    It'd be funny to have Obama nominate first an atheist and then a Muslim so that we could get the same republicans on the record insisting that faith should play a critical role in the reasoning of a supreme court justice and then insisting that faith should have no bearing whatsoever on judicial reasoning.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:25 am |
  19. John

    For those who tout separation of church and state, they should stand in front of the doors of the Supreme Court. The high court and many buildings around our nation's capital feature references to the bible, scripture and God. A good number of the founding fathers were religious and used religious lessons taught to them to make decisions on governing. The idea for seperation came from a fear of religious fanaticism taking over the government. Religious men stilled talked about God, but left it at the door so to speak. Today, it's been so mis-interpretted, it's now defined as not being able to even mention God or anything with religious overtones on federal property. It's ludicrous how far liberalism has torn away the fiber of this country and left us very vulnerable.

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

      'It's ludicrous how far liberalism has torn away the fiber of this country and left us very vulnerable.'
      And its done that how exactly?

      May 19, 2010 at 11:26 am |
  20. ______>>>>>_______________

    This article is more fit for a high school newspaper than CNN. The whole article is about the meaninglesses of religious labels, then he says we need religious diversity. What a pointless piece of junk. Total drivel. How much are they paying this guy to write down these type of pointless, contradictory musings? This is pure trash. Maybe he should animate it on an LCD screen, and it would come out better.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:24 am |
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About this blog

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.