Beliefs Cathy Lynn Grossman: Faith and Reason Opinion

Does the Supreme Court need an evangelical justice?

Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court hear arguments on whether government-sanctioned prayer before public meetings is constitutional. Photo via Wikipedia Commons
Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court hear arguments on whether government-sanctioned prayer before public meetings is constitutional. Photo via Wikipedia Commons

Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court hear arguments on whether government-sanctioned prayer before public meetings is constitutional. Photo via Wikipedia Commons

When the last Protestant on the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice John Paul Stevens, announced his retirement in 2009, the politics of the president’s choice for the vacancy was more than a left/right/liberal/conservative showdown.

NPR’s Nina Tottenberg tracked the history of another battlefront – religion. She called it a “radioactive subject.” And she noted that two Jews and a Catholic were among the most oft-mentioned names for the post.

After Elena Kagan, who is Jewish, joined the court 2010, the mix became six Catholics and three Jews — until Saturday.

The death of the very conservative, very Catholic Justice Antonin Scalia now brings that religious balance question back to the table. It’s a four-four court not only because all three Jewish justices lean to the liberal but because Catholic justice Sonia Sotomayor votes with them.

As I wrote when Steven’s retired, even when we know someone’s religious brand, we cannot assume:

  • That everyone lives — and judges rule — in accord with that brand.
  • That even if they were formed in one childhood faith, they haven’t come to see the world, or that religion differently
  • That they will — or will not — impose their personal faith views on the entire nation with their rulings.

Richard Garnett of Notre Dame law school told Tottenberg,  “So for those Protestants in America for whom their faith is important, they can look to the court and say, ‘Well, we do see representation on the court of people like us – people who take their religious faith and religious traditions seriously. True, they’re Roman Catholics … not Baptists like us, but they take their religious traditions seriously.'”

According to a 2013 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, more than one in three (37 percent) of U.S. adults say Supreme Court justices’ religious beliefs shape their decisions on the bench “a lot.” Another 44 percent say religion influences justices just a little while 15 percent said religious beliefs “have no influence.”

A justice brings to his or her way of seeing the world, a particular perspective on how to handle texts – be they the Bible or the Constitution. And they bring their cultural capital as well.

Philip Weiss blogged at The Nation Institute:  “When we consider the justices, are we really pondering, “Where are the people who think like me?”

Protestants — be they mainline, evangelical or fundamentalist – have been losing ground as cultural and political force.

The 2015 Pew Research Religious Landscape survey found Christianity still dominates American religious identity (70 percent) but there are dramatic shifts away from denominational religion. And indifference to religion of any sort is on the rise as well.

Do Protestants, no longer the majority strand of American culture, and folks with no religious identity see themselves (their values and vision of America) in the Supreme Court?

Or do they recognize, as Christianity Today pointed out in 2010,  “… the composition of the Supreme Court has never reflected the composition of the country. All justices were white until the appointment of Thurgood Marshall in 1967, and all justices were male until the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981…Though Baptists constitute the country’s largest Protestant group, there have been just three Baptist justices.”

This brings me to a question for which I invite your civil comments (one per person and then step aside please).

Do you care what religion the next Supreme Court justice claims? Why?


About the author

Cathy Lynn Grossman

Cathy Lynn Grossman specializes in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics. She also writes frequently on biomedical ethics and end-of-life-issues


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  • As someone who identifies as an evangelical in belief but not one who follows the moniker in the political sense (what self-aware evangelical can after we supposedly “love Donald Trump”), I think it’s important to me that a justice would hold to the traditional Christian virtues (compassionate, hopeful, irenic, courageous, etc…) and that would help create a climate of understanding and would protect against partisanship and the vitriolic fervor we so often see. I don’t know if there are any evangelical judges (which doesn’t just include baptists by the way) who fulfill that description, but I’d how there is.

  • I am Lutheran, white and in my mid-30s and I deeply desire a Protestant justice. I personally disagree with having six Roman Catholics, three Jews and no Protestants. The two sides are deeply divisive and really struggle to find common ground; they are polarizing. I think the court would benefit from an unpredictable and moderate Protestant justice.

    Over the course of history, Protestant nominees have often seem to be liberal or conservative during the nomination process, and then switched sides after years on the bench. This can be frustrating, but also provides some middle ground and can result in common sense rulings. Presently, the decisions are never ruled by a majority, the opinions and dissents are extreme, and the rulings often neglect precedents. As such, the Supreme Court is degrading itself in my mind and much of the public. The country needs to restore this institution to its dignified place of determining common-sense solutions to challenging and divisive…

  • There are no atheists on the Court, nor have there been in recent history. That is *far* more of an issue that not having an evangelical justice (when the evangelicals *already* have so much political and social power via the Religious Right GOP). Lets consider atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, or other groups instead of just all Christians and some Jews for once.

  • We need a constitutional conservative. One who does not write laws and is deeply rooted in the historical values of the writers of our constitution. A staunch defender of life and states rights to protect United States citizens from aggression militarily, economically, religiously, and culturally. One who is grateful for being a U.S. citizen and is responsible in protecting that privilege. Trustworthy and faithful in carrying out their awesome obligation to present and future generations.

  • Exactly. Perhaps considering people from walks of life who have never been considered will bring with it more open minds and less tendency to use personal beliefs in decisions.

  • Toleration of religious practice is inherent within the First Amendment. The government must have a compelling interest before it restricts the free and open exercise of religion. The current flurry to remove public prayer and any image that can remotely be described as religious runs counter to this. So, it is important that Supreme Court Justices have a tolerance for the free exercise of religion generally, and for non-sectarian public reference to religion is important. What religion, if any, that an incoming justice claims should not be a criterion for one’s selection.

  • What we have absolutely no need for whatsoever is applying a religious test for office. There is a little constitutional issue there. What we don’t need is yet Another Justice–like Scalia– who cannot leave his religious beliefs– that is, his purely theological concerns, outside of the courtroom and outside of the laws that govern all of us.

    Today,the legislature ofVirginia passed a religious “freedom” bill, wherein discrimination on the basis of religious belief, as long as it is labeled “sincere” is perfectly acceptable. We have laws at every level of government in Virginia that forbid this discrimination, as does the civil rights act of 1964.

    This is the kind of world Scalia wanted to leave us.

  • My preference is for a humanist, but I’m more interested in their judicial record. I’m looking for someone who will protect women’s and minority rights, and will support a strong separation of church and state, regardless of their religious beliefs.

  • I respectfully disagree. We are one nation under God. You should treat our founding with respect, and study it.

  • ms – “We are one nation under God.”

    LOL! We obviously aren’t, or we wouldn’t be having this debate.

    Furthermore, your imaginary sky-daddy isn’t mentioned in the Constitution.

  • Douglas M Shaw – “free exercise of religion” – my desire to force you to listen to my delusional nonsense at school assemblies and government meetings.

  • In other words you want a reactionary who will support local efforts at discrimination against political minorities and turn the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment into so much toilet paper. Someone who fails to recognize the duty of the judiciary to act as a check against legislative authority.

    Like it or not, the judiciary has been “legislating from the bench” since 1801 and has seen no need to change such things. Even the “Constitutional conservatives” acknowledge such things. Scalia never denied the power of his own position as you would have. He did plenty of his own “writing laws”. The whole “there should be no legislating from the bench” is a deeply ignorant argument that goes nowhere. The Supreme Court is not going to relinquish the power which keeps them a significant part of the government.

    One who is grateful for being a US citizen should support the very things which keep us from voting away the civil liberties of us all. Judicial review.

  • “Toleration of religious practice is inherent within the First Amendment.”

    There are limits to any right “free exercise.” Law is superior to “religious practice.”

    “Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious beliefs and opinions, they may with practices. . . Can a man excuse his practices to the contrary because of his religious belief? To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself. Government could exist only in name under such circumstances.” Reynolds v. United States

  • The only way the government protects free exercise of religion is by upholding the prohibition of establishment of religion. Secular government protects religious citizenry. Religious expression by government is not free exercise of religion in most cases. In fact it chills free exercise when it is done in a sectarian manner.

    Public prayer, especially of a specific sectarian type is an attack on the beliefs of its citizens. It tells minority faiths and atheists that they will not have the protection of government. That certain sects have undue power over others. If you feel the overwhelming need to use public resources to pay homage to religion, the only way to do so which is proper is of an ecumenical type. Embrace all faiths and beliefs to the exclusion of none. But those in favor of public prayer are almost always against such notions of fairness, neutrality or respect for faiths other than their own. They hate free exercise of religion.

  • “I think it’s important to me that a justice would hold to the traditional Christian virtues (compassionate, hopeful, irenic, courageous, etc…)”

    Because nobody other than xians embrace the same or similar values.

    It’s funny how xians ignore those other xian values described in the bible. For example:

    it allows slavery, including selling your own daughter as a (sex?) slave (Exodus 21:1-11), child abuse (Judges 11:29-40 & Isaiah 13:16), and bashing babies against rocks (Hosea 13:16 & Psalms 137:9). This type of criminal behavior should shock any moral person.

  • “would protect against partisanship and the vitriolic fervor we so often see”

    You mean as we see now among the xian GOP presidential hopefuls? Yes, we need a Justice to protect against those types.

  • “Do you care what religion the next Supreme Court justice claims?”

    Yes, we need one whose religious beliefs don’t include satan and young-earth creationism.


    For the same reason we don’t need one who believes aliens abduct people for the purposes of anal probing.

  • It is part of diversity to have individuals of different religions , social economic backgrounds and cultures as much as other qualities that make persons different from one another including non-Christians, mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, Orthodox Christians, etc.

  • What makes you think Muslims, Buddhists and atheists have more open minds than Christians? People use their personal beliefs in their decisions. Changing religions doesn’t change that – it is the original sin.

    Jesus Christs cleanses us and renews us continually, even when we fail. He helps us to be better people.

    You may be a very nice person, but you seem naive to me.

  • “What makes you think Muslims, Buddhists and atheists have more open minds than Christians?”

    This, for one thing: “Jesus Christs cleanses us and renews us continually, even when we fail. He helps us to be better people.”

    Since when? I don’t see any evidence of it.

    “you seem naive to me.”

    Claims someone who believes in an imaginary sky-daddy.

  • “People should not and cannot be compelled to violate their conscience and moral beliefs.”

    Except when they oppose law and conflict with the rights of others.

  • The Lord created you; He is the Alpha and the Omega. You cannot put a yoke around Him. To attempt to do so is blasphemy and I pray for you.

    The argument you make only makes sense to an atheist.

  • were he or she a wise jesuit who could write a column explaining to the larger community the right to civil marriage for the glqt community under the concept of equal protection of the laws, i’d happily go with that. but, given the intellectual reach and capacity of the current crop of catholics on the court, i think i’ll put my imaginary money on a plain old humanist with a taste for civil and human rights. all amdg, but from a separate entrance.

  • Not at all. It’s upholding it from attacks by people who do not appreciate Religious Freedom. Anyone who claims our nation is beholden to a given faith does not understand religious freedom.

    People who attack secular government essentially oppose the religious freedom of faiths besides their own. Government which favors one faith, attacks others.

  • So you believe. Religious freedom means I never have to care what your religion says nor can be compelled to care. Blasphemy is not only perfectly legal, but a protected right.

    Your argument only makes sense to a theocratic who hates civil liberties and a free society.

  • It will be a great day when an atheist is finally nominated and confirmed to serve on the Supreme Court. It will mean that the US citizenry finally acknowledges that people who have dispensed with mythology can be sensitive, socially responsible, morally upstanding members of the community.

  • How about a secular humanist. The Bible was written by men. Men that may have thought their inspiration was divine. The Bible is the largest collection of ancient political propaganda to make into western civilization. Sure, there are people that claim it is the actual word of God. That God has been silent since man learn that Nature follows universal laws and mathematics. The mystery is gone and God went silent. Faith is believing in something for which there is no evidence. There is no heaven, no hell, and no God. Law is man made. Morality is a trait of all living things. Only men kill their own kind. They do it for greed, or hate, or God, whether at war, or on the street, or in the home. Man has always known it is wrong to kill their brothers. It does not take a God to prohibit killing. Without greed, hate or God, killing would stop.

  • Religion mettles in the private lives of US Citizen. The claimed reason is religious morality. The Bible is not a moral text. Using it is as a guide for human morality is flawed. The highlight a few immoral acts God perpetrates and therefore condones is genocide and slavery. Mass murder is rampant in the OT. Leviticus explains how to rape and beat you slaves and follow mosaic law. Keep your Bible out of my SCOTUS and governmental apparatus.
    Thank you

  • Agreed. Bill or Hillary Clinton would also suffice as would Elijah Cummings and other African American lawmakers. I understand however the frontrunner is D.C. Appeals Court Justice Sri Sravasan (spelling?) who was confirmed to his present bench in 2013 by a 97-0 vote including those of Senators Cruz, Rubio, and McConnell. They cannot therefore justify a vote against him now except to show what rank hypocrites they are. I don’t know what his faith, if any, is. I trust Obama’s judgment.

  • Excerpts from Scalia’s New Yorker interview 10/6/13

    You believe in heaven and hell?
    Oh, of course I do. Don’t you believe in heaven and hell?

    Oh, my.

    Does that mean I’m not going?
    [Laughing.] Unfortunately not!

    Wait, to heaven or hell?
    It doesn’t mean you’re not going to hell, just because you don’t believe in it. That’s Catholic doctrine! Everyone is going one place or the other.

    But you don’t have to be a Catholic to get into heaven? Or believe in it?
    Of course not!

    Oh. So you don’t know where I’m going. Thank God.
    I don’t know where you’re going. I don’t even know whether Judas Iscariot is in hell. I mean, that’s what the pope meant when he said, “Who am I to judge?” He may have recanted and had severe penance just before he died. Who knows?

    Can we talk about your drafting process—
    [Leans in, stage-whispers.] I even believe in the Devil.

    You do?
    Of course! Yeah, he’s a real person. Hey, c’mon, that’s standard Catholic doctrine! Every Catholic…

  • After the 1960 Kennedy campaign, in which JFK had to go to great lengths to assure the US that he would be a secular president, not governed by Rome, who would have thought that 56 years later, we’d be consumed by wondering if our highest leaders in the Executive and Judicial branch are religious enough. We have Dominionists running for President claiming that if you don’t pray on your knees to Jesus every day, you aren’t worthy to be Commander In Chief, and Supreme Court justices giving interviews stating the Satan is alive and well in our society and trying to make us atheists. Isn’t this what our Founding Fathers strove to avoid, after seeing the bloodshed that intermingled European governments and religious institutions wreaked in the 17th century?

  • There are many excellent comments here. Thank you all.

    I prefer a justice who does not rule according to her religion, but according to the constitution. For some justices, their religion is so deeply rooted in them that they can’t see around it. Therefore, I believe some attention must be paid to that aspect. My choice would be a non-Christian, a none, or an atheist. High moral principles are not only present in Christianity, but are extremely common among all human beings.

    The “strict constructionists” aren’t really. Their determination to rule according to what a small group of men decided in the late 18th century is ridiculous. The constitution must be brought into the 21st century and interpreted in light of the present day.

    In my opinion, a nominee with a sharp intellect and a strong sense of curiosity is the most critical quality.

  • I do not see where the religious beliefs of justices should be relevant.Jews have been over-represented on the court. If this is a result of their religion, it seems mostly a result of the traditional Jewish respect for education.
    Louis Brandeis, no Jew had served on the court, and there was strong opposition to his appointment. Following him, Justices Benjamin Cardozo, Felix Frankfurter, and other Jewish justices have served with distinction, many being among the most brilliant justices to serve.

    Catholics who have served recently have varied from the very conservative Clarence Thomas to the very liberal William Brennan. It is difficult to suggest that their judicial views were shaped entirely by their religion.

    Current suggested nominees include a judge born in India and a Hindu and another born in Vietnam, whose religion is unclear. Both would be considered not because of their religion, but because of their legal stature and accomplishments.

  • I was thinking John E. Jones III

    He is a lifelong Republican and W. Bush appointee. But he also has no patience for religious extremist nonsense. Finding no cogent arguments provided for Creationism in schools or gay marriage bans, he issued decisions in an even handed, well reasoned and sensible fashion.

    It would look really bad if Cruz and pals tried to block someone from his own party, who is well respected from both sides of the political fence.

  • It is time to have a secular person on the court to get the government and the church out of the bedrooms of America!

  • Let us get some real diversity on the Supreme Court. The Judaeo/Christian monopoly should be broken. It’s past time for a non-monotheist to be represented. There is a highly qualified Hindu, currently under consideration.
    I say bring him on.

  • I do believe diversity is important, without it change or a different perspective can be difficult. Most importantly is you have individuals who can change.

  • I believe that what one does with one’s own beliefs (and others’ beliefs) is far more important than are the beliefs that one believes. And I believe that my belief is unbelievably magnified when it comes to what a Supreme Court Justice does with that Justice’s own beliefs (and others’ beliefs).

  • There are too many old, Catholic men. A woman AME from the South would be good. Most Americans no longer attend church regularly and so it should be with SCOTUS. There should be a Hispanic. An Asian. They should rotate through a Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Santeria, Native American shamanist etc.

  • Evangelical Christianity is not a religion anymore. It is just a wing of the Republican Party, so no, there shouldn’t be an Evangelical seat on the court. Presbyterian, sure, or AME, even a Lutheran or two, but the Evangelicals have traded their heavenly mission for one that is indistinguishable from any secular pressure group–but instead of tariffs or taxes they want to impose their narrow and very recently invented view of the bible on all of us.

  • Considering there are few lawyers and even fewer jurists who hold those more ignorant beliefs, the odds of one of them qualifying for the SCOTUS are slim. Their extreme beliefs are inconsistent with our constitution.

  • Article VI, Clause 3 states in part “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” That is unambiguous.

    That said, I believe that is it in America’s interest to have a Supreme Court that reflects the composition of American people, insofar as is reasonable. As regards Faith, let me note that there are currently eight theists on the Supreme Court and not one non-theist. The “religious balance” line of thinking calls out for a “None” justice.

    Though I am Episcopalian, and nearly a third of all SCOTUS justices have been historically, I am not complaining about under-representation or loss of influence.

  • I do not think that one’s religion should even be considered. Of course now, let a jurist who happens to be a believing Christian be nominated and watch how fast their religion will be thrust front and center for public spectacle. As someone has earlier invoked regarding Article VI, Clause 3, when it comes to that the Constitution be damned.

  • There is big discrimination vs Bible-believing Christians, persons who trust the Lord Jesus as Savior & reject the non-Biblical pope & idolatry.