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Where did the Protestant justices go?

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on May 10, 2010 at 6:15 pm |
May 11, 2010 8:47 am

If Elena Kagan – a Jew – replaces Justice John Paul Stevens – a Protestant – on the Supreme Court, the court will consist of six Roman Catholics and three Jews. Protestantism, still the country’s majority religion, will be completely shut out for the first time in American history.

An obvious reason is that religious affiliation has become far less important in politics than it once was. As recently as 1960, Protestant clergymen were alarmed that John F. Kennedy would be in cahoots with the Vatican if elected president. (They should have been more worried about him being in cahoots with a string of floozies.)

But no one’s been seriously attacking presidential and Supreme Court nominees on the basis of religion as long as I can remember. Protestants – who split roughly between conservative evangelicals and members of more liberal “mainline” denominations – don’t speak with one voice, if they ever did. The evangelicals certainly don’t seem to be complaining about the five Catholics who constitute the conservative wing of the court. Whatever their theological differences, they can’t quarrel with results.

But why the disappearance of actual, certifiable Protestants? The mainline brand-name denominations – Episcopalians, Methodists, etc. – have been collectively shrinking in size and becoming far less of a factor in the country they once dominated.

Yet the ranks of evangelicals (I’m loosely including fundamentalists and Pentecostals) have been growing apace. Where the heck are they?

One clue might be found in the educational background of Supreme Court justices. Stevens is a graduate of Northwestern, but all of the others – including Kagan, if confirmed – are graduates of either Harvard’s law school or Yale’s. The real common denominator of the court is a degree from the nation’s two most prestigious schools. Presidents, senators and the legal establishment still apply a test of faith when they fill seats in the upper echelons of the judiciary; they believe in Ivy Leagueism.

Evangelicals need not apply. This is an oversimplification, but Ivy League campuses and other high-prestige schools are not particularly hospitable to conservative Protestants. In fact, the professoriat in general seems hostile to evangelicals. I don’t think professors dislike their beliefs per se so much as they view them as political Neanderthals who vote for the likes of George W. Bush.

Check out this 2007 survey by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research. It suggests that a large percentage of college faculty members positively despise evangelicals, an attitude that can’t help but affect the atmosphere on campus and spill over into the classroom.

I’m guessing that such attitudes are just a little more evident at places like Yale and Harvard than at the University of Idaho or Central Washington University, though evangelicals have been pushing back in the Ivy League lately.

Demographically, evangelicalism is where the action is at in American Protestantism. A bad fit between evangelicals and the elite schools is bound to affect the pipeline of prospective jurists. There used to be a “Jewish seat” and a “Catholic seat” on the Supreme Court, to ensure representation of these once-marginalized groups. Who knows – someday there may be a “Protestant seat” to ensure representation of the country’s largest religious tradition.

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