The United States once had a civil war between the north and the south. But even before, geography was a great divide in American political life. A capital was carved out of swamplands in what's now Washington, D.C. because the founders felt it wisest to put their government in a neutral location.
In the decades that followed, political parties thought it was smart to choose national tickets to reflect geographic diversity, as Lincoln of Illinois, a northern prairie state, had done in 1864 by choosing Sen. Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, a southern border state. So in 1960, John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts chose Lyndon Johnson of Texas to run with him against Richard Nixon of California, who tried to make the same point by choosing Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts as his running mate.
But history moves on, and in a time of frequent flyer miles and Americans moving freely every few years, geographic diversity doesn't seem an important political calculation.
Ethnicity, religion and gender began to count for more. Jews, still barred by bigotry from many Ivy League law schools, were first nominated to the Supreme Court with Louis Brandeis and Benjamin Cardozo in the early 20th century. By the time Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed in 1993, news accounts made more mention of the fact that she was only the second female justice. And when President Obama appointed Justice Sonia Sotomayor last year, her Hispanic heritage drew as much notice as her gender. Thurgood Marshall became the first African-American justice during the great civil rights era of the 1960s, and Clarence Thomas sits on the court today.
Just 50 years ago, the popular Rev. Norman Vincent Peale said, "It is inconceivable that a Roman Catholic president would not be under extreme pressure by the hierarchy of his church to accede to its policies." But John F. Kennedy was elected that year. Today, six of the justices on the Supreme Court are Catholic, two are Jewish, and I know of no respectable voice who would utter anything like the Rev. Peale did.
Eight of the justices on the court today are from Ivy League law schools. Some people believe that nominating a justice who got a great legal education and trial experience in the west or south might enliven discussion on a court where Harvard and Yale predominate. Five of the justices are from the northeast, and only one is from the south, which hardly reflects where people live in America today. Placing an avowed atheist, an active evangelical, an open gay or a former public defender might be a bolder step to express America than the usual categories by which we have come to keep score of diversity. America has become so gloriously varied, the old categories may feel a little narrow now. And, they'll only change.