We will have a Supreme Court made up of six Catholics and three Jews if Elena Kagan, the president’s judicial nominee, is confirmed. That was the starting lineup for every Little League baseball team in Yonkers, N.Y., when I was growing up in the 1950s.
It was a second- and third-generation immigrant neighborhood that the old-line Protestants had abandoned after World War II. A kid was either Catholic or Jewish, and while we knew about Protestants, we didn’t really know any Protestants. Which is why we used the term “Protestants.” Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist and Baptist were esoteric identities we only vaguely recognized. We just put them all in the Protestant pot and figured God could sort them out.
So the 1960 presidential campaign of Catholic John F. Kennedy was a shock to us — not that a Catholic was running, but finding out that, beyond the neighborhood, roughly 70 percent of the country wasn’t Catholic or Jewish. Who knew?
But for anyone of a certain age, it is surprising to think of a Supreme Court without a sitting Protestant jurist. Back in the day, it was assumed there would be a Catholic judge, a Jewish judge and seven mainstream Protestant judges. By my high school graduation in 1967, an African-American judge, Thurgood Marshall, was added to the mix, but the court remained solidly Protestant.
But all that has changed, and there are probably a host of sociological — rather than religious — reasons for the makeover, or so the pundits tell us. I think the bottom line is that the kids from my old Little League team had parents that just kept pushing.
Most of us were pretty crummy ballplayers precisely because the parents made us waste time doing homework. That’s how kids end up in law school rather than holding down third base for the Yankees.
Every once in a while, though, that old White Anglo Saxon Protestant world pops up to surprise you. A lady sent me a note the other day about cars outside a local parish getting leaflets under the windshield wipers claiming that Catholics aren’t Christians at all. A little anti-Catholic literature right after Mass.
Just a few days before, the spouse and I were at a furniture store. We were looking to replace the ancient cushioned chair my old dog had comfortably claimed as his own for a lot of years. We picked one out, and I was in back chatting up the ladies as I settled the bill and gave them directions for delivery. I explained that our neighborhood was right across from a popular evangelical church.
“Makes it easy for you on Sunday!” one of the ladies offered. “Nope,” I said, “we’re Catholics, and we’ve got to hit the road on Sunday.”
She actually backed up a step or two, put one finger over the other in the shape of a cross, aimed it at me and said, “That’s not good at all!”
I must have looked at her as if she had just pulled a lobster out of her pocket. I managed to say, “Heh-heh.” She looked at the papers she was filling out and, without making eye contact, said, “I guess God loves us all. It’s a mystery.”
I let it go. I signed the paper and turned to leave. “God bless,” I said, more out of habit than conviction, which is my problem. “He will,” she answered as I walked away. I wondered if it was just a bad joke that got embarrassing or a little peek at her own neighborhood church.
It’s good to know that the one issue that will not seriously arise in Kagan’s confirmation hearings is the absence of a Protestant on the Supreme Court for the first time since, well, ever. Those days when religious bigotry lurked just below the surface are long gone.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.