White House

By J. Brent Walker, BJC Executive Director

The upcoming election will be an important one and certainly historic in at least one sense. In the 223 years of our republic, this will be the first time that no white Anglo-Saxon Protestant will appear on either ticket of the two major parties for president or vice president. The only professed Protestant on either ticket is President Barack Obama. The other candidates all belong to non-Protestant churches: Gov. Mitt Romney is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan both are Roman Catholic.

We have never had an American president who claimed to be atheist or agnostic, but there have been several whose religious affiliation was not entirely clear and at best professed a generic, civil religiosity. Most presidents, except for John F. Kennedy, stood generally in the Protestant tradition even if at times their theology was deistic and non-Trinitarian. Four presidents have been Baptist: Warren Harding, Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Much the same has been true of vice presidents in our history. Joe Biden is the first Roman Catholic to serve in that office. Baptist vice presidents — who were not also president — were Richard M. Johnson (1837-1841), Nelson A. Rockefeller (1974-1977) and Al Gore (1993-2001).

This astonishing fact about the two tickets in the upcoming election is accompanied by a similar shift in the judicial branch of the federal government. With the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens and the ascension to the U.S. Supreme Court of Elena Kagan, for the first time in our history no Protestants are serving on the High Court. Three justices — Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — are Jewish, and the other five are Roman Catholic.

Protestantism has been the dominant religious affiliation of the 112 justices who have served on the Court. Throughout most of the 20th century, there was an informally designated “Jewish seat.” The first Jewish justices on the Court — Louis Brandeis (1916-1939) and Benjamin Cardozo (1932-1938) — were followed in succession by Felix Frankfurter (1939-1962), Arthur Goldberg (1962-1965) and Abe Fortas (1965-1969). The same is generally the case about a “Catholic seat.” In the 20th century, Catholics have included Edward White (1894-1910, Chief Justice 1910-1921), Joseph McKenna (1898-1925), Pierce Butler (1923-1939), Frank Murphy (1940-1949), Sherman Minton (1949-1956) and William Brennan (1956-1990). Only three Baptists have served on the Supreme Court: Howell E. Jackson (1893-1895), Charles Evans Hughes (1910-1916, Chief Justice 1930-1941) and, most recently, Hugo Black (1937-1971).

These startling facts about the eclipse of Protestant hegemony at the top the executive and judicial branches are more than just interesting. It is some evidence that we seem to be taking seriously the clause in Article VI of the U.S. Constitution that bans religious tests for public office. That nobody is talking much about it suggests that we are becoming more comfortable with the principle that our leaders should not have to sign on the dotted line of a particular religious confession in order to serve.

Yes, some of our countrymen (erroneously) still talk about an officially designated “Christian nation.” Others — even some professed Republicans — say they would never vote for a Mormon. (This remains to be seen. We’ll soon find out whether dissatisfaction with the record of President Obama will trump their distaste for Mormonism.) But, the conspicuous absence of white Protestants at the highest levels of two of three branches of the federal government without much fanfare or criticism says that, in practice, we have made peace with the no religious test principle even if some continue to talk as if they want one.

This fact not only attests to a practical aversion to religious tests but also reflects our increasing ethnic and religious pluralism. The United States continues to be one of the most religious and religiously diverse nations on the planet. Although still dominated by a majority claiming to be Christian, the mosaic of other faiths in our country is staggering.

Adding to this texture of pluralism is the recently reported rise in atheism, agnosticism and others who claim to be “spiritual” but do not affiliate with any faith tradition. While the number of Americans who say they are atheists has risen from one percent to five percent over the years, the total number of these so-called “nones” now stands at 19 percent. And, overall in the United States, the percentage of those polled who self-identify as “religious” stands at 60, dropping from 73 percent seven years ago.

Of course, these statistics are just that: statistics. The numbers can fluctuate depending upon the nature of the questions asked and the methodology employed by pollsters. But, they do continue to demonstrate that the United States is robustly religious, religiously plural and substantially secular in its demographic makeup.

It is no accident — in a country that generally is unwilling to impose a formal or even practical religious test and whose First Amendment protects the freedom of and from religion — that we see palpable religious pluralism encouraged thereby and manifested in the upper reaches of our government.

From the September 2012 Report from the Capital. Click here for the next article.