Neil Gorsuch if confirmed will be, as an Episcopalian, the first Protestant on the U.S. Supreme Court in 7 years. Before Antonin Scalia’s death, the court had six Catholics and three Jews. The court’s religious demographic illustrates the implosion of Mainline Protestant hegemony in American culture.
Less than 20% of Americans now identify with Mainline Protestantism, which has been demographically replaced by Evangelicalism as the largest religious group. Mainliners still often have disproportionate representation among leadership elites, especially in Congress and other elected offices. But they have disappeared from the top court, pending Gorsuch’s arrival.
Gorsuch will be the 34th Episcopalian on the court, which has included 18 Presbyterians, nine Unitarians, five Methodists, three Baptists, one Lutheran, 13 Catholics, and eight Jews, at least according to Wikipedia. The Lutheran was Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who was often seen about my hometown of Arlington and sometimes visited a neighborhood Methodist church. A family friend of mine knew him through an art class and once offered him a ride when spotted walking. Rehnquist initially declined but asked where she was going. “To the liquor store,” was the answer, to which he smilingly responded, “In that case…,” as he got into her car.
Gorsuch as an Episcopalian is probably also no stranger to liquor stores! (We Methodists are often smug on this point.) He is reportedly active at a very liberal Episcopal congregation in Colorado that appears outspoken on progressive sexual, theological and political issues. It’s not unusual for non-liberal Mainline lay people, often due to longtime family affiliation, to attend churches with liberal clergy who reflect the trends and policies of their Mainline denominations. Conservative critics of Mainline Protestantism, like myself, credit especially theological liberalism across the last 100 years for spiritually and demographically marginalizing the once mighty Mainline, which consequently lost its strong self-identity.
Until fairly recently almost all Supreme Court justices were Mainline Protestants. There were only three Catholic justices in the 19th century, starting with Roger Taney. Woodrow Wilson appointed the first Jewish justice, Louis Brandeis, in 1916. Wilson may have been trying to compensate for his earlier appointment of James Clark McReynolds (photo above), an anti-Semite who shunned his Jewish colleagues, which later included Benjamin Cardozo and Felix Frankfurter. Reputedly McReynolds with two other justices pleaded for Herbert Hoover not to appoint Cardozo as the court didn’t need another Jew.
McReynolds seems not to have had objections to his two Catholic colleagues, one of whom was his ally in blocking much of FDR’s New Deal. The reasons behind his anti-Semitism, which included once refusing to pose in a court photo with Brandeis, are unclear. He was from a Disciples of Christ background in Kentucky but apparently was not devout. One of his clerks wrote a fascinating memoir called: The Forgotten Memoir of John Knox: A Year in the Life of a Supreme Court Clerk in FDR’s Washington. He recalled the justice had quizzed him about his own church affiliation but never himself attended church, instead hosting brunches at his posh Washington apartment, often attended by other justices.
Sunday brunch as replacement for church is said to be a trait of Millennials and various hip post-Christians. But elderly Supreme Court justices were doing it 80 years ago. I often walk by McReynolds’ still grand apartment building on 16th Street by Meridian Hill and ponder his odd legacy. His most famous rulings were relatively progressive, overturning laws against foreign language instruction in public schools and that forbade attendance at non-public schools. He affirmed individual rights and free speech.
Supreme Court Chief Justice and former President William Taft called McReynolds competent but “selfish to the last degree” and “fuller of prejudice than any man I have ever known.” Reportedly no justices attended McReynolds’ funeral but a majority attended the rites for his popular and long-suffering black servant, who was himself Catholic.
McReynolds represented an old and fortunately expired form of Protestant cultural bigotry. Mainline Protestant culture at its best created one of the most democratic and inclusive societies in human history. Arguably, it was so inclusive and self-abnegating that it made itself virtually irrelevant, and is increasingly absent from cultural, political and intellectual leadership, especially the last.
In many ways, Catholics and Jews are religiously dominant in American intellectual religious life, thanks partly to the implosion of Mainline Protestantism. America’s great universities were originally Mainline but almost none remain seriously religious. The Mainline no longer produces public intellectuals like Reinhold Niebuhr and has almost no capacity or vision for doing so. Only religious communities that retain a strong self-identity can generate strong voices and leadership.
Evangelicalism is America’s largest religious group, broadly speaking, but is historically a fairly recent development and lacks the deep traditions, leadership experience, confidence and cultural momentum for which the Mainline was once renowned. With time, it will continue to ascend, and no doubt its representation on governing bodies and elite circles will eventually reflect some of its strength. But likely there’ll never again be an equivalent to Mainline Protestant hegemony, on the Supreme Court, or elsewhere.