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February 10, 2017

Protestants & Supreme Court

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.


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  • Dan

    Old joke told around Richmond – How can you tell the difference between a Methodist and a Baptist? The Methodist will say hello to you when he/she sees you in the ABC store while the Baptist will quickly duck into another aisle to avoid you.

    • robertthomason

      I grew up in Alabama. We have our own version of that joke – that Baptists don’t speak to each other at the state store.

  • johndoe

    If he’s the typical Episcopalian, he is no more Christian than the other CINOs on the court, such as Anthony Kennedy. Clarence Thomas and the late Scalia were the only 2 justices who showed any sign of taking their faith seriously.

    • gaudete

      I believe that John Roberts and Samuel Alito are also practicing, traditional, orthodox Catholics, as opposed to the Kennedy, Pelosi, Biden types.

      • johndoe

        Maybe. I hope so. They haven’t been there for long, they haven’t left a paper trail like Thomas and Scalia did.

    • Hamilton Jones

      I think Clarence Thomas frequently worships in the Episcopal Church, even though he is a member of the Roman Catholic Church.

    • “typical Episcopalian” means not Christian? I would argue the same about the typical Evangelical though with more damning arguments.

      • johndoe

        That’s an argument you would lose. Polls show that a large number of Episcopalians (like all left-wing Christians) do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus nor in the virgin birth, nor even an afterlife. In other words, they dispense with some core doctrines that Christians have always considered essential. Evangelical Christians are much more likely to believe in the resurrection of Christ. Not surprisingly, polls also show that evangelicals are much more likely to read the Bible outside of church than liberal denominations.

        Sounds like you’re just a culture snob who assumes Episcopalians must be better Christians because they’re more sophisticated than evangelicals. The New Testament has some rather damning things to say about that too.

  • Been_There_Done_That

    Being Episcopalian is the only concern I have with Gorsuch and his future rulings. I find it hard to believe that a truly conservative jurist would sit through that week after week and take his children there. That is not the church he grew up in and there are two other Episcopal churches and an Anglican Church in Boulder that are more conservative. I’m afraid we have another David Souter on our hands.

  • “It’s amazing how pride can conspire to blind us. Take the nomination of Neil Gorsuch for example.

    “Conservatives invested a lot in their support of Trump so they have a lot of incentive to see Trump’s choice as great. We want to see Mr. Gorsuch as Christian and conservative whether he is or isn’t. Conservative media have exclusively portrayed Mr. Gorsuch as very conservative.

    “Liberals invested a lot in their opposition so they are saying the same thing. They are screaming Mr. Gorsuch is an extreme conservative to drum up opposition on their side.

    “Neither side wants to admit any possibility they could have been wrong. Because of that there are a few facts neither side will tell you:

    “Mr. Gorsuch attends St. John’s Episcopal Church of Boulder, CO. This is one of the most liberal churches in the nation. Parishioner’s from Mr. Gorsuch’s church sponsored the recent “Women’s March” in Boulder. Mr. Gorsuch’s pastor, Susan Springer, attended that march and spoke about it glowingly in her weekly church blog. The church’s official position on abortion is that it is a woman’s right and should be defended. They also support homosexuality as a perfectly Christian option.

    “Mr. Gorsuch is being portrayed as anti-abortion based solely on a book where he opposed euthanasia. But in Pino v. U.S., 507 F.3d 1233 (10th Cir. 2007), Judge Gorsuch argued a “non-viable fetus” does not possess the same rights as a “viable fetus”.

    “He is also being portrayed as anti-gay. But in 2009, Judge Gorsuch was one of the earliest to decide federal law prohibits discrimination based on gender identity. (Kastl v. Maricopa County Cmty. College Dist., 325 Fed. Appx. 492 (9th Cir. 2009)….” (John Wickey)

    This nomination would never occur under a biblical government:

    “…The Bible stipulates, among other things, that judicial appointees must be men of truth who fear Yahweh and hate covetousness. (See Chapter 5 “Article 2: Executive Usurpation” for a list of additional Biblical qualifications.) The United States Constitution requires no Biblical qualifications whatsoever [made all-but impossible by Article 6’s Christian test ban]. Nowhere does the Constitution stipulate that judges must rule on behalf of Yahweh, rendering decisions based upon His commandments, statutes, and judgments as required in Exodus 18. That not even one constitutional framer contended for Yahweh,3 as did King Jehoshaphat, speaks volumes about the framers’ disregard for Him and His judicial system:

    ‘And he [King Jehoshaphat] set judges in the land throughout all the fenced cities of Judah, city by city, and said to the judges, Take heed what ye do: for ye judge not for man, but for YHWH,4 who is with you in the judgment…. And he charged them, saying, Thus shall ye do in the fear of YHWH, faithfully, and with a perfect heart.’ (2 Chronicles 19:5-9)….”

    For more, see online Chapter 6 “Article 3: Judicial Usurpation” of “Bible Law vs. the United States Constitution: The Christian Perspective” at http://www.bibleversusconstitution.org/BlvcOnline/biblelaw-constitutionalism-pt6.html.