What’s to be learned from the religious makeup of U.S. Congress members?

On January 3 the Pew Research Center issued its biennial “Faith on the Hill” listing of the religious identifications for each member of the incoming U.S. House and Senate, using biographical data compiled by CQ Roll Call. Reporters may want to tap scholars of both religion and political science for analysis.

Coverage in the Christian Science Monitor and other media emphasizes that although religiously unaffiliated “nones” are now as much as 23 percent of the population, members of Congress are lopsidedly religious -- on paper -- with 90.7 percent identifying as Christian, close to the 94.9 percent back in 1961.

Only popular three-term Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) officially has no religious affiliation, though several members are listed as “don’t know/refused,” along with many generic identities of  "nondenominational" or “Protestant unspecified.”

What’s the news significance here? After all, formal identifications often tell us little about an office-holder’s actual faith, or stance on the issues, or whether there’s a connection. Consider liberal Sonia Sotomayor, conservative Clarence Thomas and straddler Anthony Kennedy, all self-identified Catholics on the U.S. Supreme Court, or all the pro-choice Democrats who are "personally opposed" to abortion.

Sen. Bernie Sanders is counted as “Jewish,” but was probably the most secularized major presidential candidate yet. Does a “Presbyterian” legislator belong to the “mainline” Presbyterian Church (USA) or the conservative Presbyterian Church in America? Are these currently active affiliations, or mere nominal labels that reflect childhood involvement? In reality, are a particular legislator’s religious roots important in shaping policies?

It all depends.

Nonetheless, Pew’s lineup demonstrates that despite secularization, a broadly religious image remains valuable for an American politician, whatever his/her inner life. Political scientists David Campbell and John Green both told the Monitor that “nones” are not necessarily anti-religion and may feel that faith gives a politician moral moorings. A 2015 Gallup Poll showed only 58 percent  were willing to vote for a qualified atheist as president (though that compared with 18 percent in 1958).

Pew portrays some continuation of the longstanding alignment of Catholic and Jewish politicians with the Democratic Party. With Republicans in Congress, 27 percent are Catholic (among them House Speaker Paul Ryan), compared with 37 percent of Democrats. As of 1961, Protestants claimed 398 members of Congress, versus a slim majority of 299 today. During the years since President Kennedy took office, Catholics have increased from 100 to 168.

There are only two Jewish Republicans versus 28 Democrats. That Jewish total of 30 is a rapid drop from the 45 in the 2009-2010 Congress. Yet an impressive 8 out of 100 Senators are Jews, over-representation compared with their 2 percent of the over-all population. The traditionally elite Anglican/Episcopal category is over-represented, with 35 members in the two houses, though that’s a drop of six from the previous Congress. Baptists, at one time under-represented, are the largest Protestant category with 61 House members and 22 Senators (including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell), equaling their 15 percent of U.S. adults.

Also, the listings are social barometers that tell journalists something about new groups’ ascent into the ranks of high-prestige officials. All of the following are Democrats:

* Three Buddhists (Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Representatives Hank Johnson of Georgia and newly elected Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii).

* Three Hindus in the House (Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, newly joined by Ro Khanna of California and Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois).

* Two Muslims in the House (Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first of his faith in Congress, and Andre Carson of Indiana). However, the Muslim count could  drop to one because Ellison says he’ll resign if chosen new chair of the Democratic National Committee at a February 23-26 meeting.

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