Beliefnet News

Beliefnet News

Supreme Court Will Have No Protestants. Does It Matter?

(RNS) As Solicitor General Elena Kagan prepares for confirmation hearings to make her the newest member of the U.S. Supreme Court, her nomination changes the religious makeup of the nation’s highest court.
But does it matter that the bench would include six Catholics and, with her confirmation, three Jews and no Protestants?
Observers say it’s a historic turning point for a court once comprised of Protestant elites to have no Protestants following the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens. But the shift may say more about how the country — rather than the court — has changed.
“I think that this means that this is an extraordinarily tolerant country religiously and I think we should stop for a moment and appreciate that,” said Boston University professor Stephen Prothero. “It wasn’t long ago that Protestants were burning down Catholic monasteries, and it wasn’t long ago that the Holocaust happened.”
As times changed, presidents used the nomination process to determine who should fill a “Catholic seat” or a “Jewish seat” or even a “woman’s seat” on the court. Now, even those limitations are archaic, Prothero said.
“The glass ceilings are gradually getting shattered.”
If Kagan is confirmed as expected, she will join fellow Jews Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer on the court. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor are all Catholics.
Religious affiliation has become, in recent weeks, the newest wrinkle in the long-running Washington parlor game of sketching the profile of top-level nominees that often starts with race, ethnicity, gender and ideology.
The Constitution specifically forbids a “religious test” for government office, and that’s the way it should stay, said the Rev.
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“Religious affiliation,” he said, “is immaterial.”
First Amendment Center scholar Charles Haynes said Kagan’s nomination — and the rather ho-hum consideration of the court’s religious makeup — is an indication of the country’s maturity.
“I think we have grown up,” he said. “And I think we now realize that first, we are a very diverse country and, secondly, that there are core principles that we need to look to when selecting a justice and religious affiliation has really little relevance.”
The loss of a “Protestant seat” on the Supreme Court shows how traditional religious labels no longer apply, Haynes said. Religious conservatives, for example — from evangelicals to Roman Catholics to Orthodox Jews — are more likely to forge alliances based on ideology, not church attendance.
“They’re less concerned now about the religious affiliation and more concerned about those social and political values,” he said.
Even so, the dearth of Protestants on the court has not gone unnoticed. Author and scholar Diana Butler Bass, who has written about the importance of mainline Protestantism in the country’s history and culture, said the shift on the court is one more indicator of America’s statistical slide from a majority Protestant country. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the percentage of self-identified Protestants in the U.S. is a bare majority of 51 percent.
Bass said there is a “Protestant empathy” for individual conscience, the power of symbols and the separation of church and state.
“It doesn’t mean that Jews and Catholics can’t interpret these things,” she said. “It just means that they’re going to interpret them rather differently than a Protestant.”
Bass said the change should be marked — but with sadness, not anger. She also noted, with a bit of irony, that Protestants who were so devoted to church-state separation may now have separated themselves from the nation’s highest court.
“We’re so successful that we’re putting ourselves out of business,” she said.
Still others said it was perhaps too much to expect a Protestant judge — of evangelical, mainline or African-American persuasion — to fully represent the diverse range of American Protestant churches.
“It’s difficult to think of sort of a monolithic Protestant worldview and to think that any one justice from any one denomination could be representative of Protestantism in America,” said Barbra Bennett, a lawyer and adjunct professor in the religion department of Elmhurst College in Illinois.
But Prothero, author of the new book, “God is Not One,” said while Americans should be “patting themselves on the back” for their country’s openness to Catholics and Jews, the court still does not fully represent the religious diversity of the country.
Eventually, he said, there should be an atheist or Muslim nominee, along with other Protestants. “We only have two religious traditions now on the court in a country that has many,” he said.
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

  • pagansister

    What difference does it make that there will be no Prostestants on the Supreme Court? None that I can see. Religion has nothing to do with the qualifications for a Justice on that court (or any other court, for that matter).

  • cknuck

    What a particular hateful statement seemingly aimed at fueling a climate of disdain; “I think that this means that this is an extraordinarily tolerant country religiously and I think we should stop for a moment and appreciate that,” said Boston University professor Stephen Prothero. “It wasn’t long ago that Protestants were burning down Catholic monasteries, and it wasn’t long ago that the Holocaust happened.” Prothero makes it evident that it makes a difference that there are no Protestants as he parades the wrong reasons to pay attention to the state of the Supreme Court and the wrong reason to pat ourselves on the back.

  • jestrfyl

    I expect that NOTHING Prothero writes will meet your approval. I have read three of his books and find them quite interesting. I especially recommend Religious Literacy. However, I also appreciated his book, American Jesus.
    I think this sign of plurality in our society is a good one. That religious affiliation is not a strong consideration but a private concern is excellent. Diversity is strength in situations like this.
    I expect the shift in the gender balance may generate more attention than her religious life. For those who want to find fault, and there is none, they will create some tangential issue that forges a Frankenstein Monster of fear where there is none.

  • cknuck

    So jest you approve Prothero comparing the holocaust and Catholic church burnings to Protestants being judges? It’s a hateful comparison with nothing to do with today. I shouldn’t be surprised that you would like that kind of talk.

  • Heretic_for_Christ

    I don’t see any attempt to draw an analogy between atrocities of the past and the religious composition of SCOTUS. Quite the contrary. The point that Prof. Prothero is making, as I read it, is that America, despite being predominantly Protestant, is much more tolerant than the religiously obsessed Protestant cultures that spawned such atrocities in other countries in other times.

  • cknuck

    We have our own atrocities H, nevertheless I see your point.

  • Heretic_for_Christ

    Indeed, we do have our own atrocities to confront and acknowledge and atone for.

  • Ian

    It is a despicable comment by Prothero. He is linking Protestantism with atrocity. The centre of the Nazis in Germany was in Catholic South Germany.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Earl Wright

    No Protestants – NOW you breathlessly see Obamacare upheld.

Previous Posts

Former Muslim Wants to See Change   Author and former Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali spoke at the National Press Club on April 7th and said there needs to be five amendments to Islam. She said “individuals” within Islam today ...

posted 9:08:12am Apr. 10, 2015 | read full post »

Hispanics turning evangelical, Jews secular
Worship service attendance is up in New York City, but down among young adult Jews, according to recent studies. On the other hand, fewer Spanish-speaking teens are attending Catholic mass, but more are showing up at Evangelical ...

posted 3:10:30pm Nov. 05, 2013 | read full post »

Billy Graham: I know where I'm going
“Daddy thinks the Lord will allow him to live to 95,” said Franklin Graham recently. It was not a prophecy but a hope, Franklin explained, ...

posted 10:02:01am Oct. 24, 2013 | read full post »

Are All These Christians' Complaints of Persecution Just So Much Empty Whining?
The headlines are alarming: “Catholic-Owned Company Wins Religious Freedom Court Decision,” “Death Toll Rises to 65 in Boko Haram Attack on Students,” “Little Sisters Catholic Charity Victimized By Obamacare,” “Christians Sought ...

posted 2:41:26am Oct. 07, 2013 | read full post »

How can Christians defend themselves against today's random violence?
So, a crazed gunman opens fire and you’re caught in the middle. How can you survive? Heroes come in all sorts of packages. And they wield all sorts of defensive weapons. Such as guns and Jesus. Sometimes both at the same time. [caption ...

posted 2:53:48pm Sep. 27, 2013 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.