Sonia Sotomayor becomes the Supreme Court’s sixth Catholic, leaving 89-year-old John Paul Stevens as the last remaining Protestant. And when he steps down…
Pennsylvania Avenue was thronged with marchers demanding justice. Young men in khakis and wingtips brandished their protest signs (“Protestants are Americans, too” and “NAAwasP”) while chanting:
Six papists, two Jews.
What’s this country coming to?
It didn’t quite rhyme, but for the nation’s prosaic Protestants, it would suffice.
Lord knows they had every reason to take to the streets. The resignation of David Souter, an Episcopalian, had left a single Protestant on the nine-member Supreme Court. And now he was leaving, too. If President Obama didn’t nominate another Protestant in his place…
This was the land, was it not, that Protestants had wrought and ruled. John Winthrop’s “shining city on the hill” wasn’t the Vatican. Forty-three out of the 44 presidents professed to a Protestant faith. Congress was religiously reliable, too. But the religious minorities had somehow seized control of the Supreme Court. The next appointment by a president with a Protestant mother and a Muslim father could make it unanimous.
No one had seen the judicial discrimination coming. First, Ronald Reagan named Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy, both Catholics, to the Supreme Court, President George H.W. Bush, an Episcopalian himself, had nominated Souter and thought he was naming another Episcopalian, in Clarence Thomas. Who could’ve guessed that Thomas would quit going to his wife’s church in 1999 and resume his boyhood Catholicism?
The next (Protestant) president named the two Jews—Bill Clinton was a Dem, natch. But it was the next president—the evangelical Christian, of all things—who did his fellow Protestants in. By naming John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, George W. Bush accorded the Catholics a judicial majority. Then Sotomayor made six.
With Stevens stepping down, Protestants’ prospect of being excluded from the highest court in the land had inspired the March for Judicial Diversity. More Americans filled the streets of Washington than for the Million Man March or to protest the Vietnam war. Scarier than dreadlocks or bandannas were the Ann Taylor A-lines and Brooks Brothers suits and the chants:
Up with white bread.
Down with rye…
The Supreme Court’s white marble edifice was so bright that it required the marchers to don their designer sunglasses. They waited politely in the sun, desultorily singing:
This land is our land,
This land is our land…
At last, the high priest of Protestantism since George Plimpton died mounted the pulpit and glanced at his plaid-strapped wristwatch. “I would hope that a wise white male with the richness of his country club experiences,” the elder Bush began, “would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion than a Latina who hasn’t lived that life.” A muffled applause came from the militants in kid gloves.
Bush told of how the high court’s very first Catholic, Roger B. Taney, had produced its very worst decision, in the Dred Scott case. “The land was ours before we were the land’s,” he was reciting when his cell phone rang to Onward, Christian Soldiers.
Once the call was done, Bush announced that President Obama has made his nomination. “A Unitarian”—cheers from the crowd—“and the only member of Congress”—the joy dialed down—“who professes to be an atheist.” Stunned silence.
The nominee was Pete Stark, a U.S. representative from California, a Democrat. He was the ultimate diversity appointment, and not only in religion. At last, in its 220th year of existence, the Supreme Court stood to gain its very first…nonlawyer.
Burt Solomon is the author of FDR v. the Constitution (Walker Books).