The Sciences

It doesn't matter if there's no Protestant on the Supreme Court

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanApr 13, 2010 2:33 PM


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My post on the religious make up of the Supreme Court is getting a bit of traffic spike due to current events. Specifically, John Paul Stevens, the high court's lone Protestant, is set to retire, and two out of the three front runners are Jewish. Let's assume that the future nominee is not Protestant (Elena Kagan, who is Jewish, is arguably the first choice). Statistically this is curious because ~50% of the the American population is Protestant. Assuming that a a Supreme Court justice is randomly drawn from the population you have a 0.20% probability that this would occur in a sequence of nine draws. Of course if Kagan is the nominee and confirmed all of the justices will be graduates of Ivy League universities, so there's nothing random about the selection process. Some of the commenters on the first post observed that the pipeline is probably going to shape the demographics of the high court. That is, elite law schools may simply have fewer Protestants than Jews or Catholics. I don't know about that, but let's look at Harvard University's total demographic balance. I don't see Catholic or Protestant breakdowns, but ethnic breakdown is public: 69% white 16% Asian 8% black 7% Hispanic Hillel estimates that ~25% of Harvard's undergraduate student body is Jewish. This means that no more than 44% of student body are white Christians (lower than the national average interestingly). Let's use the American Religious Identification Survey to estimate Protestant/Catholic numbers according to proportions by each ethnic group. I get 47% Protestant and 17% Catholic at Harvard. This is probably an overestimate for both since I suspect that the irreligious would be a higher proportion within the Harvard student body than the general population, but the ratio between proportions may be more accurate. There are major caveats here, as I think the Catholic numbers are probably somewhat higher because of regional biases and such. Why there are two, and possibly soon three, Jews on the high court doesn't require much thinking to understand. There are a lot of Jews at elite academic institutions which produce future justices. With the filters we know of two or three Jews seems entirely reasonable, even expected. But I doubt there's an enormous dearth of Protestants coming out of elite law schools. Rather, if there is a reason that we see so many Catholics, I think has to do with what some commenters were pointing out in regards to George W. Bush wanting to make sure he nominated people who had the "right" attitudes on abortion and the like. There of course plenty of Protestants with conservative attitudes, but they're evangelical Christians who are underrepresented at elite institutions. Which brings me to the point of this post, and the reason for the title: the exact numbers of Protestants, Catholics and Jews is pretty much irrelevant today in the United States. That is because Americans who are Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and even irreligious, have a fundamentally Protestant understand of how one "does" religion. To understand how and why I say American Catholics and Jews have a Protestant understanding of religion I recommend In Search of an American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension and American Judaism: A History. In Catholicism and American Freedom: A History John T. McGreevy outlines the realignment in the 1950s of Jews with elite east coast Protestants in the culture wars against traditional Catholicism, a reversal of the historical white ethnic coalitions within the Democratic party which emerged in the wake of the Civil War. In The Impossibility of Religious Freedom Winnifred Sullivan argues that American jurisprudence in the domain of church-state separation and accommodation is rooted in Protestant presuppositions. Finally, in The Cousins' Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America Kevin Phillips asserts that American Protestantism is fundamentally a dissenting faith which was aligned with the Whig party. I believe that this is most precisely the influence which frames how Americans of all faiths and no faiths understand religion. And that is why it doesn't matter if there's a Protestant in name on the high court, Americans view religion through a lens which dissenting Protestants of the English speaking world pioneered in the 18th and 19th century. Recall that the Baptists of Virginia were aligned with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in their drive to disentangle the state from the church. This means that on the coarse level you can't tell much about a person when you find out they are Protestant or Catholic. Their views range across the full arc of American public opinion, and their conception of what their religious tradition entails is going to be strongly inflected by their politics. Social justice Protestants and Catholics arguably share much more with each other than with their more conservative or traditionalist co-religionists. I'll make this concrete and quantitative. The General Social Survey has a range of questions it asks. I looked at four of them which are "hot button", constrained the time period from 1990-2008, and examined a range of religious groups and how they shook out. I combined some categories, so for Protestants the Evangelical includes Fundamentalists and Mainline includes Liberals (these two categories are for Protestants only). For Methodists, Presbyterians and Lutherans I threw all of the various sub-denominations into the same pot. I do know that there's a lot of division between conservatives and liberals by sub-denomination in these groups, but I wanted a general sense of denominational diversity at a coarser scale. The variables are: ABANY- "Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if the woman wants it for any reason?" HOMOSEX - "What about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex?" [Always wrong to not wrong at all] PRAYER - "The United States Supreme Court has ruled that no state or local government may require the reading of the Lor's Prayer or Bible verses in public schools. What are your views on this - do you approve or disapprove of the court ruling?" SPKATH - "There are always some people whose ideas are considered bad or dangerous by other people. For instance, somebody who is against churches and religion....if such a person wanted to make a speech in your (city/town/community) against churches and religion, should he be allowed to speak, or not?" Below all the proportions are for the more liberal response. Some of them, such HOMOSEX, have a wide range of potential responses and I simply picked out the most extreme liberal one (in that case, that homosexual sex is not wrong at all). Here are the raw percentages:

The variables are strongly correlated with each other, as is evident in this correlation matrix:

Yes to abortion on demandHomosexual sex not wrong at allApprove of ban on school prayerAllow anti-religionist to speak







American Baptist43142068

Southern Baptist28102163





I took each variable and simply averaged them out into a "Social issues index." The higher the index, the more liberal.

Yes to abortion on demandHomosexual sex not wrong at allApprove of ban on school prayerAllow anti-religionist to speak

Yes to abortion on demand*0.920.870.85

Homosexual sex not wrong at all**0.980.88

Approve of ban on school prayer***0.87

Allow anti-religionist to speak****

There are two big take aways from this chart: 1) The group "Protestant" has a huge range of views contingent on denomination or theological conservatism 2) The group "Catholic" is solidly in the middle of the distribution between very liberal groups (Jews) and very conservative ones (Evangelicals) As a point of fact it is obviously not correct to say that all Catholics are moderates. Rather, the class "Catholic" includes many different viewpoints, from those presumably as conservative as Evangelicals to as liberal as Jews. Similarly, though Jews are very liberal, the small orthodox minority is often very conservative (Eric Cantor, who is minority whip in the House is an example of this). And, unless one is a member of Opus Dei, a Hasidic Jew or Theonomist, arguably the vast majority of Catholics, Jews and Protestants in the United States share common presuppositions about the outer bounds of what is religion in a pluralistic society. Addendum: Just so readers know, I'm really not the type too concerned about the race, religion or sex of Supreme Court nominees personally. As a straight atheist brown libertarianish man with a "Muslim name" I've never gotten into the habit of wishing for mentors, colleagues or friends were people who I could "identify with," because frankly I'm a very special person with a unique perspective and experience which is unlikely to be replicated. This doesn't change the structure of my argument above, but I thought I would head off any bidding war as to the relevance of diversity X or Y in the comments under the preconception that the person writing the post here actually cares about such things. My main concern is intelligence, curiosity, and frankly in the case of something with political importance, ideological affinity. That's it. The rest are accidents. Though broader American society disagrees with my own viewpoint on this issue.

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