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

By Razib Khan | April 13, 2010 10:33 am

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:

Yes to abortion on demand Homosexual sex not wrong at all Approve of ban on school prayer Allow anti-religionist to speak
Evangelical 17 7 26 69
Mainline 46 23 35 77
Protestant 37 18 32 72
Catholic 38 30 42 76
Jewish 78 63 87 86
None 63 54 69 89
American Baptist 43 14 20 68
Southern Baptist 28 10 21 63
Methodist 46 22 39 75
Lutheran 45 25 43 79
Presbyterian 48 27 45 81
Episcopal 62 37 49 86

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

Yes to abortion on demand Homosexual sex not wrong at all Approve of ban on school prayer Allow anti-religionist to speak
Yes to abortion on demand * 0.92 0.87 0.85
Homosexual sex not wrong at all * * 0.98 0.88
Approve of ban on school prayer * * * 0.87
Allow anti-religionist to speak * * * *

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

socialissuesindex

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture
  • Bob Carlson

    Of course, a Jewish Supreme Court nominee has a much better chance of being secular than any of the other possible choices that the President is likely to make.

    Perhaps none of the current Justices believes that his or her decisions on cases that come before the Supreme Court are influenced by their religion. In fact, Scalia has expressly claimed that his religious beliefs do not influence his decisions because he bases them strictly on his interpretation of the Constitution. Is his interpretation of the Constitution unaffected by his religious beliefs? Wouldn’t arguing that it is be akin to asserting that his familial environment had/has no impact on the expression of his genes?

  • bioIgnoramus

    How many of ‘em keep cats?

  • Eric Johnson

    > Wouldn’t arguing that it is be akin to asserting that his familial environment had/has no impact on the expression of his genes?

    Wearing underwear is much akin in purpose to wearing a T-shirt. Yet when I sought to take my underwear off by pulling it up over the top of my head, horrible all at once was my sorrow on that account, O my Friends and only Brothers, though I held steadfast in the attempt; yea, long indeed came the wails out of my mouth, and hot was the tear on my cheek, and none from among the many could comfort me. Him that hath ears, let him think on these solemn words.

  • miko

    “In fact, Scalia has expressly claimed that his religious beliefs do not influence his decisions because he bases them strictly on his interpretation of the Constitution.”

    …whatever ad-hoc “originalist” interpretation of the constitution suits his activist social conservativism and pro-Christian proclivities that week. But it’s nice to know that this stems from being an asshole, not a Catholic.

  • charlie

    The talk about “no protestants” on the court is really just saying “no wasp” and is really saying “no real americans.”

    And, to quote Tom Wolfe, all it means it a WASP can’t cut it as a lawyer anymore, just like 100 years ago they couldn’t cut it as a doctor. Better to be a art dealer or something.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Wouldn’t arguing that it is be akin to asserting that his familial environment had/has no impact on the expression of his genes?

    my point is that the variable isn’t religion in the protestant-catholic case, but interpretation of that religion. conservative catholic vs. liberal catholic. so the issue is conservative vs. liberal. IOW, religion isn’t the root of the issue here. americans tend to suit their religion to their politics.

  • Eric Johnson

    I guess I can’t argue with referring to originalism as “originalism.” But ad hoc? Non-originalism seems a lot more ad hoc.

  • Eric Johnson

    x

  • http://www.iSteve.blogspot.com Steve Sailer

    It’s not about religion, it’s about ethnicity, and, specifically, who gets to benefit in public life from ethnicity and who isn’t allowed to benefit. Who? Whom? Chapter MCXXVII.

    Sonia Sotomayor was widely lauded for adding ethnic diversity, but a white Protestant ethnic wouldn’t.

    If the last ethnic Jew on the Supreme Court retired, there would be tremendous media pressure on any President to appoint another Jew. But the last Protestant ethnic retires, and, suddenly, all the discussions is about religion.

  • Bob Carlson

    IOW, religion isn’t the root of the issue here. americans tend to suit their religion to their politics.

    And vise versa. Those environmental factors work together and they impact Obama’s choices of nominees and the acceptability of those nominees to a Congress that is divided along lines that are both religious and political. You cannot separate the one from the other.

  • miko

    “But ad hoc? Non-originalism seems a lot more ad hoc.”

    Yeah, unless your “originalism” is a false conceit, which his is. He is originalist wherever the constitution happens to overlap (or can be interpreted to overlap) with his late-20th century social conservativism. This is, after all, a guy who made an interstate commerce argument about medical marijuana use.

  • miko

    ‘…who gets to benefit in public life from ethnicity and who isn’t allowed to benefit”

    I missed where you said who it was that doesn’t get to benefit from their ethnicity. Did you mean white people?

  • Eric Johnson

    > unless your “originalism” is a false conceit, which his is.

    Fair enough. I don’t have the knowledge of him that’d let me dispute this.

    > his late-20th century social conservativism

    I’d let this go, except that in context of our ‘ad hoc’ debate it seems to maybe imply that you find recent social conservatism to be ad hoc, or at least non-traditional. Maybe that’s not what you meant. But I don’t think recent social conservatism differs that much from the very old social conservatism tradition. It has merely chilled out a little bit since the days when Bostoners got all exercised the moment they noticed that a significant number of people in town weren’t going to church regularly. The tradition hasn’t really changed in essence.

    Tradition itself necessarily seems somewhat ad hoc when you score it on a rationalist standard. Its validity (according to its own account) comes much more from long experience. It could even be described as empiricist as opposed to rationalist. (Which is not to deny that empirical findings play some role in liberalism too.) Traditionalism would suggest that a purely rationalist order would be great, if only the ratiocination could be carried out by a perfect mind. Traditionalism would argue that real rationalist reform, devised by real people (whose nature traditionalism is a little pessimistic about), tends, in contrast, to err to such a degree that only a rather limited rate of revision of the ways of the fathers is desirable. When change is fairly slow, there is time for errors to be corrected.

    But, I hardly deny that the world has changed kind of a lot in the last two centuries. So the optimal rate of departure from the ways of the fathers is probably somewhat higher in the industrial age than it was in 1500.

  • miko

    I think I meant that Scalia seems most passionate about the issues that colored his particular upbringing–mainly the culture wars of the 60s and 70s. The fact that he regularly fails at concealing the high emotional salience these specific issues have for him seems at odds with his claim to reason from intimate knowledge of the panchronistic intent of the framers.

    “Traditionalism would argue that real rationalist reform, devised by real people (whose nature traditionalism is a little pessimistic about), tends, in contrast, to err to such a degree that only a rather limited rate of revision of the ways of the fathers is desirable. When change is fairly slow, there is time for errors to be corrected.”

    This does not sound like the people who wrote my Constitution.

  • Eric Johnson

    I see the Constitution authors as both rationalist-liberal and traditionalist, at the same time. There’s no doubt that they were sons of the “Enlightenment” (quite the loaded “propaganda”-like term!), and there’s no doubt that they created the most “Enlightened” state to date.

    On the other hand, there’s no doubt that constitutionalism by its very nature is traditionalistic. A real demos-lover like Jefferson was somewhat cool to the Constitution, and it’s pretty clear to me, considering his “Earth Belongs to the Living” writings, that this wasn’t only because he wasn’t there in person to help write it (being in France at the time as ambassador). He, in a thorough-going rationalist-optimist way, considered it absurd that “the Dead” should ever “bind the Living” in any way. If he saw any function for tradition, it was the function of preventing a “regress” to monarchy.

    I think Madison, in contrast, can be seen as fearing both the rise of a monarchy on one hand, and also, on the other, the rise of an assertive demos mis-guided by demagogues. But anyway, regardless of what any of them intended, the Constitution was meant to be changed only through the fairly difficult and inhibited process of constitutional amendment. Intentionally or no, this was a fairly conservative set-up which would limit the rate of departure from the ways of the fathers, in sharp contrast to pure or half-pure democracy. It would have preserved an Enlightenment tradition, based on works that had withstood the test of at least a little bit of time (the works of Locke and Montesquieu), based on longstanding English legal traditions, and based on the inherited mores of the contemporary elites (which were not pure-democratic or populist).

    The notion of an Enlightened traditionalism seems a little bit ad hoc, a bit of a mixture of contrary impulses. It therefore doesn’t seem quite rational — at least not if we assume that our ratiocinative powers are very great, and that we will accordingly err rather little in trying to apprehend and judge how rational it is, despite our experience being limited to less than one lifetime.

    But of course, what they intended (and what the people of the time ratified) is not what happened. Constitutionalism failed. What they created clearly was not departed from primarily through the conservative mechanism of constitutional amendment. It was departed from mostly by other means. Our government over two centuries has been half-constitutional at best.

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    Regarding SPKATH I have to wonder if the high value for that question for Jews might in part might be misleading. First, there, the question explicitly uses the word “church” which might trigger thoughts about historical persecution of Jews. Second, given historic and cultural issues, one can have people who closely resemble the nones who still self-identify as Jewish. That’s much less likely for Christians. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that PRAYER for Jews is much higher than for nones.

    More generally, the very high correlations here also make the old notion of abortion as a litmus test make more sense. Since it is so highly correlated with other views, knowledge of someone’s attitude towards abortion should be a good predictor of their attitude towards other issues. Thus, even if someone doesn’t think abortion is a central issue, it is a good enough predictor for it to be treated as one.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Since it is so highly correlated with other views, knowledge of someone’s attitude towards abortion should be a good predictor of their attitude towards other issues.

    true. but i think i recall that if you aggregate individuals into a class and run the correlations on these classes with their average values the correlation is way higher.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    follow up, of those who believe that banning state sponsored prayer is good,

    64% think homosexual sex is “not wrong at all”
    29% “always wrong”

    those who believe that banning state sponsored prayer is not good,

    36% think homosexual sex is “not wrong at all”
    71% “always wrong”

    i picked those two vars because the correlation by denomination was so high.

  • http://lablemming.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    You’re missing the bigger bias question, which is this: Is the over-representation of elite east coast educated justices unrepresentative?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Is the over-representation of elite east coast educated justices unrepresentative?

    of what?

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    Of the broader cultural and intellectual traditions of the nation that may influence the way that legal decisions are reached.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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