Congress Looks Like the People

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Congress is often accused of being out of touch with the American people. But when it comes to religious affiliation, the new Congress that will be sworn in Tuesday is quite diverse, much like the population that the members represent.

An analysis by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that the religious makeup of the 111th Congress generally reflects the religious composition of the country, though by no means in identical proportion. The analysis also shows that over the past 50 years, the ranks of Protestants on Capitol Hill have declined markedly, just as the Protestant share of the overall U.S. population has decreased sharply in recent decades.

In at least one major respect, however, Congress differs from the nation as a whole: Members of Congress are much more likely than the general public to report a religious affiliation. Whether these elected officials are more faithful or simply recognize the value of appearing to be faithful is unclear, but what's unmistakable is that the nation's elected representatives are closely linked to organized religion.

Only five members of the new Congress (of 535 members) do not specify a religious affiliation, and no members specifically say they are unaffiliated. By contrast, people who are not affiliated with a particular faith now comprise about one-sixth of American adults, making this one of the largest and the fastest-growing segments of the population, according to Pew Forum surveys.

The overall findings, though, show a national legislature that broadly reflects the country's religious diversity:

  • Protestants make up a slight majority of the new members of the House and Senate, a figure roughly comparable to Protestantism's overall share of the population. The picture today looks quite different from the early 1960s, however, when about three in four members of Congress were Protestant. 
  • Catholics comprise the single largest group on Capitol Hill and will account for about three in 10 seats in the new Congress. If Protestant denominational families are considered separately, then Catholicism is also the single largest group in the U.S. population, with nearly one in four Americans describing themselves as Catholic.

The analysis also shows that some smaller religious groups are well represented:

  • The percentage of Jewish members of Congress, for example, has more than tripled between the early 1960s and today. Jews comprise less than 2% of the nation's adult population, but their share of Congress is almost five times the size of their share of the American demographic pie.
  • Mormons also are well-represented on Capitol Hill in contrast to their share of the overall population. The percentage of Mormon members of Congress has doubled and is now slightly higher than their share of the adult population, which stands at just below 2%.

Senate vs. House, GOP vs. Dems 

The Senate and House are very different animals when it comes to the legislative process, and the differences extend to faith, too. Baptists and Catholics, for example, are better represented in the House, while Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Jews are better represented in the Senate. These differences may simply reflect the effects of representing states (Senate) rather than local congressional districts (House).

Even more striking, however, are the pronounced differences between the religious affiliation of Democrats and Republicans. Each party tends to draw on different faith communities, reflecting the impact of history, geography and party platforms. For instance, while more than seven in 10 congressional Republicans are Protestant, fewer than half of Democrats belong to Protestant denominational families. On the other hand, more than a third of Democratic members are Catholic, compared to about a fifth among the GOP.

While Jews make up more than one in eight congressional Democrats (including two independents, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who tend to caucus with the Democrats), Eric Cantor of Virginia is the only Jewish Republican in the House, while Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is the only one in the Senate. (This doesn't include Minnesota's still-disputed Senate seat, in which both candidates are Jewish.)

World religions find a place 

What about the other major religions? The first Muslim in Congress, Keith Ellison, D-Minn., came to Capitol Hill in 2007. Ellison, who is black and a convert to Islam, caused a minor media sensation when he declared that he would take the oath of office on the Koran rather than the Bible. In 2008, he was joined by another African-American Muslim, Andr Carson, D-Ind., who won a special election in March. The 110th Congress also saw the arrival of the first Buddhists, Reps. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, who, like Ellison and Carson, are returning to the 111th Congress.

To be sure, not every major U.S. religious group has a presence in Congress. There has yet to be a Hindu elected to Congress, for instance, despite this being among the most educated and well-to-do groups in the USA. Still, given its track record and the growing religious diversity of the country, Congress which of course represents all the people will likely become even more religiously diverse in the years ahead.

Luis Lugo is director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.