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After Thought: Where are all the Protestants?


With President Trumps' nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, focus again is on the makeup of the Supreme Court. Since 1789, when the nation's highest court was established, nearly three-quarters of all justices appointed have been Protestants. When John Paul Stevens stepped down in 2010 though, an odd thing happened: For the first time, there wasn't a Protestant justice.

Elena Kagan replaced Stevens, resulting in the Supreme Court being comprised of three Jews and six Roman Catholics—although there is some discrepancy regarding the recent appointee, Neil Gorsuch, who reportedly attends an Episcopal congregation but grew up Catholic. Kavanaugh has been described as being part of a vibrant Catholic community in the D.C. area.

Dr. Todd Deaton

Before we cry foul, however, we must remind ourselves that historically 89 justices are thought to have come from Protestant denominations, while only 13 have been Catholic and eight have been Jewish. About one-third of the Protestants were Episcopalian. The next largest constituency has been Presbyterian. Incidentally, although they constitute the country's largest Protestant group, only three have been Baptist.

Prior to the Civil War, according to Religion News Service, only one justice was not Protestant. Up until the mid-1990s, Protestants still comprised a majority, but by 2005 the court had completely changed. If a diverse array of justices is desirable, should we evangelicals be concerned?

Religiously, the current Supreme Court by no means looks like the American populace. But, in truth, has it ever? No doubt, our chief concern here should be to find the top judicial minds in the land, and there are other demographic considerations when it comes to diversity on the bench: race, gender, geography, educational background, for example.

Thurgood Marshall was the first African-American justice, appointed in 1967; and Clarence Thomas followed him, in 1991. Born in New York City to Puerto Rican parents, Sonia Sotomayor, became the first of Latin American descent.

The first female appointed was Sandra Day O'Connor in 1981, followed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993, Sotomayor in 2009, and Kagan in 2010.

Geographically, most Supreme Court justices come from northern states: 15 have been from New York; 10 from Ohio; nine from Massachusetts, six from Pennsylvania; and five each from Maryland and New Jersey. For the record, Kentucky has had five appointed. Nineteen states have never had anyone appointed.

Educationally, among current justices, all but Ginsburg, who studied at Columbia, attended one of two law schools, Harvard or Yale, which, ironically, both have Protestant roots. Eight of the nine have served as judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals. Perhaps, as more evangelicals with lofty aspirations pursue legal degrees at elite law schools and serve appellate courts, they will be nominated to the high court.

Again, does this all matter? Religious liberty and pro-life issues are key concerns for evangelicals and social conservatives, and many controversial issues related to church and state cases inevitably wind up before the Supreme Court. So, whether a judge holds a conservative judicial philosophy and sees their role as being to create laws or simply interpret laws seemingly are of greater importance than a nominee's faith persuasion or diversity.

While it would certainly be desirable to us for Protestants to have at least one voice—even perhaps another Baptist—serving on the Supreme Court, one's faith mustn't be a litmus test. Nor, in respect of the First Amendment, should religion become the most relevant factor in consideration for appointment. Nevertheless, since religious affiliation ultimately permeates our cultural worldview and shapes our understanding of social justice, one's church attendance still matters.

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