Bernie

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

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.

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