Sam Lehman-Wilzig
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The US Supreme Court has no WASPs – and that matters for Jews

The waning of religiosity in the US corresponds to a rise in hyper-political partisanship, and with it a surge in political extremism
Montage of the current members of the Supreme Court of the United States, including recently sworn-in Justice Amy Coney-Barrett. November 2020. (All photos PD)
Montage of the current members of the Supreme Court of the United States, including recently sworn-in Justice Amy Coney-Barrett. November 2020. (All photos PD)

During the entire Congressional confirmation process of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, one huge irony stood out – something that was never criticized nor even mentioned: as a Catholic, she joins five other born-Catholics and three Jews. Not one Protestant among them! Why an “irony”? Because President Trump chose her in large part to appease his evangelical base on the abortion issue – and as is well known, Evangelicals are Protestant.

This is mostly very good news for America. Not the fact that the Court is temporarily sans Protestants (they deserve to be on the court as much as every other religious denomination) but rather that “religious representation” has become a non-issue. This is especially striking given Trump’s “nativist” (anti-immigration) campaign in 2016. In fact, an alien from Mars might well think that Catholics are the majority in today’s America; even the Democratic presidential candidate/President-elect is Catholic!

The religious makeup of the present Supreme Court also represents a sea change in America’s perception of its Jewish citizenry. It was less than a century ago that strict quotas restricted Jewish entry into the nation’s elite law schools – and today one-third of the Court is Jewish. Yes, antisemitism still exists among certain “nationalist” groups, but “hyper-Jewish” representation on America’s highest court does not seem to be fodder for their vitriol. This, despite the Court’s “star” (RBG: until her passing several weeks ago) being demonstrably Jewish. In short, no longer is religious background in and of itself a controversial issue – neither for the presidency nor for the land’s highest court. What seems to count far more is a candidate’s policy – whether “grounded” in religion or not.

However, there’s some bad news hiding in this positive development, and it has to do with the demise of religious belief and religious affiliation in the US as a whole. A PEW study in 2019 found that “the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular,’ now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009” – this across all religions and see Novctors of the population (attendance at religious services by those remaining “religious” has also dropped by the same percent). Indeed, the “non-religion” trend is sharpest among young adults, a harbinger of future declines.

One can argue whether declining religiosity is good or bad, but the secondary effect is highly problematic: hyper-political partisanship. It is no coincidence that the last decade or so has witnessed rising political extremism paralleling the decline of religious affiliation. On first thought that sounds paradoxical: aren’t religions the source of much political extremism? Not necessarily and certainly not for everyone. As a representative example, think of committed Jews in light of AIPAC vs J Street. Rather, religious affiliation offers an opportunity to “bond” with others who have imbued their life with the same “meaning.” What happens when that disappears? People will search for another group to bond with – and for many Americans this has become political party affiliation.

A striking 2016 public opinion survey emphatically highlights this when compared to a similar poll in 1958 regarding Americans who strongly identify as Democrat or Republican. In 1958, “18 percent said they would want their daughter to marry a Democrat and 10 percent a Republican, while an overwhelming 72 percent said they wouldn’t care.” However, in 2016: “Twenty-eight percent of respondents said they wanted their son or daughter to marry a Democrat and 27 percent a Republican, leaving only 45 percent to say they didn’t care” (https://www.voanews.com/usa/us-interpolitical-marriage-increasingly-frowned-upon).

In the final (and primary) analysis, humans are not only social animals, but above all else they are “tribal”. This, in the sense that they won’t socialize with just anyone but rather prefer and seek out “like-minded” people to be with. Religion served that purpose, enabling political identification to be just that: not an existential identity, but something relegated to a specific, narrow area of life. Unfortunately, when religious identity wanes, another “strong affiliation” will naturally take its place. Americans might no longer worry about a Justice’s religion. However, based on Justice Barrett’s recent contentious confirmation hearings and straight-party vote, the flames of “us” vs “them” haven’t died down – they’ve only moved on to a different playing field.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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