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Where did the Protestant justices go?

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on May 10, 2010 at 6:15 pm with 11 Comments »
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.

Leave a comment Comments → 11
  1. johnearl says:

    “Who knows – someday there may be a “Protestant seat” to ensure representation of the country’s largest religious tradition”

    I sure hope not. If we fall hard into the path of identity group politics when evaluating Supreme Court nominees, the next President to nominate a justice might have to scour the land for a seven-foot, redheaded, disabled, left-handed, Asian/Native American, Protestant, gay/lesbian/transgender, Iraq War veteran from a Western State. Oh, and they would need a law degree too!

    Good Grief. How much better to just look for a discerning legal mind.

  2. theogsters says:

    Agree with them or not, at least Jews and Catholics have an intellectual basis for their beliefs. On the other hand, today’s “evangelicals” are seen as simple, radical and, possibly, a new wave of Christian terrorists.

  3. LuckyCharm says:

    You guys beat me to it. What a lame, small-minded column. Would the Founders have required a certain faith distribution across the Supreme Court? I believe that’s exactly the type of government they opposed.

  4. Patrick O'Callahan says:

    Read the column again, please, LuckyCharm. A “who knows, maybe” is not the same as “I think there ought to be.” I’m with John Earl 100 percent on the identity politics thing. I was exploring why the Protestants were disappearing, not arguing for any group’s automatic inclusion on the court.

  5. LuckyCharm says:

    Mr. O’Callahan, you may not have come out in unequivocal support of such a quota system, but statements like “Evangelicals need not apply,” ‘the professoriat in general seems hostile to evangelicals,” “professors … view them as political Neanderthals,” etc. convey a definite sense of unfair exclusion. Furthermore, among the respondents to the one survey you cite, only 1.8% came from law professors — the most likely to produce jurists, and the next-to-least represented field behind agriculture — so it could appear that the study doesn’t accurately portray attitudes within law schools themselves. All of this taken together, coupled with “evangelicalism is where the action is at in American Protestantism,” create a distinct impression that you favor “ensur[ing] representation of … marginalized groups” on the Court.

    But you may be interested in a different take on reasons for the decline: “Many religion scholars attribute the decline of Protestants on the high court to the breakdown of a mainline Protestant identity and to the absence of a strong tradition of lawyering among evangelical Protestants.” The article goes on to discuss the propensity of members of various faith traditions to pursue law as a career, and the availability of schools geared to their beliefs. Quite fascinating, actually, and ultimately more optimistic in tone than you might expect.

  6. Patrick O'Callahan says:

    Lucky Charm,
    An interesting article. I’m not sure the atmosphere in law school matters as much as in the undergraduate programs that feed the law schools, though a tradition of not going into law would certainly matter. Both Jews and Catholics have hung on to formidable educational traditions; it would be interesting to know if their dominance on the court is being mirrored in other intellect-intensive fields. An irony is that both Harvard and Yale were created as heavily religious colleges to educate Puritan ministers and leaders; their law schools now seem to be a bottleneck that screens out the Puritans’ closest surviving relatives. The new evangelical groups on campus could change things a bit.

  7. Cervantes says:

    “I don’t think professors dislike [evangelicals'] beliefs per se so much as they view them as political Neanderthals who vote for the likes of George W. Bush.

    Conservatives, while a minority at the high-powered universities you mention, have long had and continue to have a presence there. William Buckley went to Yale. So did George w. Bush. I went to an Ivy League school, and conservative Republicans (some Protestant, some Catholic, some even Jewish) were a vocal presence there and seemed to enjoy the ideological battle with majority liberals. These folks crowed about their votes for

    Not many of them were Evangelicals, though. In fact, I think these Ivy League conservatives would have been a bit embarassed to be associated with folks whose idea of furthering education included banning Catcher In The Rye from school libraries and forcing high school biology classes to teach Intelligent Design.

    Evangelicals’ long tradition of anti-intellectualism, from the Scopes Trial down to the present day, has a lot more to do with mainstream intellectuals suspicions of them than any recent vote-casting decisions. Evangelicals’ own reputation for intolerance (Jerry Falwell: “God Almighty does not hear the prayers of a Jew”; see also Franklin Graham’s recent comments on Hindus and Muslims) doesn’t do wonders for their popularity in centers of learning, either.

  8. Cervantes says:

    If I’m reading your article correctly, your thesis, though not very clearly stated, is that hostility toward evangelicals at Ivy League universities is somehow responsible for their relatively minor presence there and, as a result, their under-representation on the Supreme Court.

    That’s ridiculous. Law Schools like Harvard and Yale base their admissions decisions on the numbers. The most important number is LSAT score, and that test does not discriminate against Evangelicals.

    In my observation, evangelicals tend to self-segregate and attend bible Bible Colleges where they’ll be part of a majority or — as you mentioned — state schools where their views aren’t likely to be challenged much. Seniors at such schools are just as welcome to take the LSAT nd complete Harvard Law applications as anybody else; if their Bible College education has served them well and given them top notch skills in reasoning and critical thinking, they’ll hit a home run on the LSAT and get into Harvard Law.

    You statement “Evangelicals need not apply” isn’t an oversimplification — it’s a falsehood. They certainly _can_ apply.

    Painting evangelicals as a group that’s been persecuted by high-powered universities and denied mainstream success does a disservice to groups that have suffered _real_ discrimination of the sort that you describe, and yet have achieved that success. Jews come to mind.

  9. Cervantes says:

    Patrick, I just read your comment that Harvard and Yale’s law schools “seem to be a bottleneck that screens out [evangelicals].

    I challenge you to back that up. Show me the numbers – or even just a shred of evidence – that evangelical applicants with similar qualifications to other applicants are rejected by these schools in disproportionate numbers. LSAT scores would be the most important qualification; law schools, more than any other type of professional school are notorious for admitting “by the numbers.”

    Or find me a single applicant who can make a good case that he’s been passed over for admission to these schools based on his evangelical beliefs or background.

    If you can’t back up your claim, you should withdraw it. Unsupported claims of discrimination — even when stated wishy-washily with terms like “seem to be” — are simply dishonorable, whether they come from Al Sharpton of from a newspaper editorial writer.

  10. Patrick O'Callahan says:

    Put the “bottleneck” statement in the context of the whole piece, including “a tradition of not going into law would matter.” The lack of enthusiasm no doubt runs both ways. Nobody’s sitting in the admissions office screening out people on the basis of belief, at least I don’t think so; it’s more of a bad cultural fit that probably leaves evangelicals less likely to want to get into Harvard Law, etc.
    A bottleneck can exist even if no one deliberately created it.

    Nor do I think anyone has denied evangelicals mainstream success or that they are a marginalized group. They seem to be able to elect presidents, dominate state legislatures and entire cultures in much of the South and Midwest. My curiosity was just about the looming absence of Protestants, evangelical and mainline, on the high court, especially in view of their large numbers in this country.

    I don’t admire anti-intellectualism in any form, and I do agree that it is fostered in some conservative Protestant circles – a self-imposed bottleneck that’s likely to limit anyone’s success in mainstream higher ed. As for “evangelicals need not apply,” that’s an old figure of speech. If I wanted to read it as literally as you do, I could also note it doesn’t say that they can’t apply, just that they don’t need to. Nobody needs to.

  11. LuckyCharm says:

    My whole issue stems from making religion a litmus test at all, or even bringing it into question. I, as an animal-rights activist, could probably dig up statistics showing that over 90% of Americans self-identify as opponents of animal cruelty. Could I therefore legitimately ask potential SCOTUS candidates whether or not they love puppies? “Oops, you don’t love puppies, big black mark there, most Americans disagree….”

    Shouldn’t the main deciding and overriding factor be the ability to comprehend complex cases and rule according to the Constitution, no matter which demographic group one belongs to?

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