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?