Whither the Protestant elite

The first Jewish Supreme Court justice was Louis Brandeis, who was not sworn in until 1916.

Historically speaking, about half of all Supreme Court justices have been either Episcopalian or Presbyterian. About a third of all justices have hailed from the Episcopal Church.

It is actually pretty amazing that not one Protestant is on the Supreme Court today.

Mainline Protestant Churches haven’t fared that well in Congress lately either, at least from a leadership perspective. In the House, both the Speaker and the House minority leader are Roman Catholic. In the Senate, the majority leader is a Mormon and the majority whip is a Catholic. Only one leader is Presbyterian and not one is Episcopalian. There is one Jewish member of leadership, one Methodist, and the rest are Baptist.

I am Catholic, so while I take pride in the fact that Catholics make up the majority of the court, I still find it amazing.

The Presbyterian and Episcopalian branches of Christianity have long dominated the political establishment of Washington. They were the Protestant elite that basically ran the country.

They were the folks who went to the finest boarding schools, went to Harvard and Yale, then graduated to the white-shoe Wall Street law and investment firms. They were the ones who dominated the OSS and then the CIA.

They were the ones who decided what the laws meant, who got the best jobs, who made the most money and who got into all the best clubs.

But the old Protestant elite ain’t what it used to be. Harvard and Yale graduates are now more likely to Asian or Jewish than Presbyterian. The biggest firms on Wall Street aren’t run by Episcopalians anymore either.

Evangelicals now make up a bigger percentage of Protestants than either the Presbyterians or the Episcopalians. Southern Baptists are probably the most politically active and most powerful Protestant group in the Congress.

Episcopalians ran the country because they had the money and because their faith was a natural bridge between the Catholics, who make up the biggest single religion in the U.S., and other Protestant religions. They aren’t quite Catholic, but Catholics didn’t find their religion offensive because its doctrine is so close to their own. And they weren’t Catholic, so to the Protestants, they were perfectly acceptable.

But as the Episcopal Church became mired in its own internal conflicts, it found it couldn’t compete with the fervor of the Evangelicals, who siphoned off some members (think George H.W. Bush, an Episcopalian, and George W. Bush, an Evangelical), while many others decided just to rejoin the Catholic Church (think George H.W. Bush and Jeb Bush, who is now a Catholic).

Now, no Episcopalians are on the Supreme Court, in the leadership of Congress or in senior roles in the White House.

This is a historically significant development. I don’t know what it means, exactly, but I find it fascinating.


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