Where have all the Protestants gone? Apparently not to law school. If Elena Kagan, who is Jewish, is confirmed to replace John Paul Stevens, who is Protestant, America’s highest court will have six Catholics, three Jews and zero Protestants. This would be a historic development ”” a coup nearly as momentous as the 2009 inauguration of America’s first black president, but far less widely understood.
When the Supreme Court first convened in 1790 (with six judges as opposed to the current nine) it was an all-Protestant club, with four Episcopalians, a Unitarian and a Presbyterian. During the 19th century, Protestants worked through churches and voluntary associations to make America Protestant. They did this by identifying Catholics as the enemy, scapegoating the pope as the Antichrist and U.S. Catholics as his minions overseas. If, as historian Richard Hofstadter has argued, anti-Catholicism was “the pornography of the Puritan,” it was the Victorian’s fantasy, too.
Protestants still account for about 55% of the 111th Congress, but a recent flurry of Catholic and Jewish appointments has turned them into a minority of one on the Supreme Court. Should Kagan be confirmed, the nation’s highest court would be a Protestant-free zone for the first time since John Jay, the nation’s first chief justice (and an Episcopalian), banged his gavel in 1790.