Thursday, April 22, 2010

Religiosity of the Supreme Court

John Paul Stevens is currently the only Protestant jurist on the United States Supreme Court. Justice Stevens has announced his retirement at the end of the current term.  Of the eight remaining justices, six self-identify as Roman Catholic and two as Jewish.  

The U.S. Constitution clearly states that there will be no religious tests for office.  But until fairly recently the Supreme Court has been overwhelmingly Protestant and 35 have been Episcopalian (more than any other religious group).

For the nation’s first two generations all members of the court were Protestant.  In 1836, Justice Roger Taney became the first Catholic member. But for thirty years after Taney, the court was again entirely Protestant. Edward Douglas White ended the “Protestant monopoly.”

In the early twentieth century the nation began to expect a “Catholic seat” and then also a “Jewish seat” on the court. The nomination of the first Jewish Justice, Louis Brandeis, was bitterly contested. Anti-Catholic sentiments were also still common in the early part of the twentieth century.  However, despite the nation’s uneasy relationship with its Catholic and Jewish citizens, the practice of having one Jewish and one Catholic Supreme Court justice continued more or less from 1916 until 1972 (Nixon broke with the tradition).  
In 1967, Justice Thurgood Marshall became the first African-American to join the court and in 1981 Justice Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to do the same.  Recently, I dare say, we have not viewed religion to be as important as race and gender.

In 1985, when asked about the future of maintaining a Catholic seat on the Supreme Court, Catholic jurist William Brennan remarked that in fifty years’ time “no one will care about these things.”

For the Record the “Top Five”: Episcopalian 35; Presbyterian 19; Catholic 11; Unitarian 10; and Jewish 7.



Sandford MacLean said...

Of course, Father, Episcopalian jurists are not Protestant.

Best regards,
Sandford MacLean

Charles Hawkins said...

While Episcopalians are catholic, they are also protestant--the great via media!

Seriously, demographers simply mean--"not Roman Catholic" or "Easter Orthodox" when they use the label "Protestant," They tend to divide all of Christendom into these three categories.

Which raises the question: What do you (if you are a demographer) use as a classification for "Christian Scientist," or "Mormon?"

Charles Hawkins said...

Poll on the issue of the original blog post: