Diversity Under The Dome

With Two Buddhists And A Muslim Taking House Seats, The New Congress Is More Religiously Diverse Than Ever

By Jonathan Tilove

The new Congress, for the first time, includes a Muslim, two Buddhists, more Jews than Epis­co­palians, and the highest-ranking Mormon in congressional history.

Roman Catholics remain the largest single faith group in Congress, accounting for 29 percent of all members of the House and Senate, followed by Baptists, Meth­odists, Presbyterians, Jews and Epis­co­palians.

While Catholics in Congress are nearly 2-to-1 Democrats, the most lopsidedly Democratic groups are Jews and those not affiliated with any religion. Of the 43 Jewish members of Congress, there is only one Jewish Republican in the House and two in the Senate. The six religiously unaffiliated members of the House are all Democrats.

The most Republican groups are the small band of Christian Scientists in the House (all five are Republican), and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (12 Republicans and three Democrats) – though the top-ranking Mormon in the history of Congress is Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader.

Baptists divide along partisan lines defined by race. Black Baptists, like all black members of Congress, are Democrats, while most white Baptists are Republicans. Notable exceptions include House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) who now serves as president pro tem in the new Senate, making him third in succession to the presidency after the vice president and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Because 2006 was such a good year for Democrats, they have regained their commanding advantage among Catho­lics, which had slipped during an era of GOP dominance. In Pennsylvania alone, five new Democrats, all Catholics, were elected to Congress in November, including Bob Casey, who defeated Sen. Rick Santorum, a far more conservative Catholic.

In the new Congress, two-thirds of all Catholic members will be Democrats. By contrast, after big Republican gains in 1994, 44 percent of Catholic members of Congress were Republican, according to Albert Menendez, a writer and researcher who has been counting the religious affiliations of members of Congress since 1972.

“It’s a thankless task, but somebody’s got to do it,” said Menendez, 64, who lives in nearby North Potomac, Md., and has published his counts and analysis first with Americans United for Separation of Church and State and more recently in Voice of Reason, the newsletter of Americans for Religious Liberty. He is also the author of several books, including Religion at the Polls (1977), John F. Kennedy: Catholic and Humanist (1979) and Evangelicals at the Ballot Box (1996).

Menendez bases his count on how members of Congress identify themselves. When he did his first tally after the 1972 election, Congress was still much in the sway of a few mainline Chris­­tian faiths.

At the time, just three mainline Prot­estant denominations – Methodists, Pres­byterians and Episcopalians – ac­counted for 43 percent of all members of Con­gress, including 51 senators. Come January, those three will account for just a fifth of Congress, including 32 senators. Still, all three – especially Episco­palians and Presbyterians – continue to be better represented on Capitol Hill than among the general population.

Other historically important Christian denominations have suffered steep declines in Congress. Menendez said the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964 brought 14 Unitarians to Washington. In the next Congress there will be two – Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) and Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).

In the late 1960s, there were 29 members of the United Church of Christ in Congress. In the new Congress, there will be only six, including Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) who joined the church as an adult. (Obama’s Kenyan father was from a Muslim background and his American mother’s parents were non-practicing Baptist and Methodist.)

Through it all, Lutherans have maintained. Menendez said they were underrepresented relative to their population in 1972, with 16 members of Congress, and remain underrepresented today with 17. (While their total numbers have held steady, their political allegiance has flipped from 2-to-1 Republican to 2-to-1 Democrat.)

Evangelical Christians – a category that cuts across denominational lines – are even more underrepresented, according to Furman University political scientist James Guth, all the more so after this year’s defeat of Republican incumbents like Reps. John Hostettler of Indiana and Jim Ryun of Kansas.

But perhaps the most underrepresented group in Congress is the 14 percent of all American adults who, according to the 2001 American Religious Identifi­cation Survey, conducted by scholars at the Graduate Center at the City Uni­versity of New York, claim no religion at all.

Only six members of Congress, all Democrats, identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated: Reps. John Tierney and John Olver of Massachusetts, Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, Neil Abercrom­bie of Hawaii, Tammy Baldwin of Wis­consin and Mark Udall of Colorado.

Meanwhile, Jews have continued to gain representation in Congress (8 percent in the new Congress) even as their share of the national population has waned (1.3 percent in 2001). But Jewish numbers in Congress also tend to fluctuate with Democratic fortunes. In a year in which Democrats did well in unexpected places, new Jewish members of Congress were elected last fall from Tennessee, Kentucky, Arizona and New Hampshire, as well as more familiar terrain like Florida and Wisconsin.

For Buddhists and Muslims, the 110th Congress represents their first congressional representation.

The two Buddhist Democrats – Reps. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Hank Johnson of Georgia – both have avoided talking about their religion, saying it is an entirely private matter.

A spokesman for Hirono, who came to Hawaii with her mother from Japan when she was 8, would only confirm that Hirono was raised in the tradition of her mother’s Jodo Shu Buddhism.

A spokesman for Johnson would only confirm that he became a Buddhist some 30 years ago and is affiliated with Soka Gakkai International, an American Buddhist association.

Like Johnson, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to Congress, is a convert and African-American. Raised Catholic, he converted to Islam at age 19 while attending Wayne State University.

“The election of this first Muslim is quite important symbolically,” said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “It may very well be the harbinger of greater acceptance of Muslims in the future.”

Jonathan Tilove writes for Newhouse News Service. ©Religion News Service.

Religion Of Members Of Congress

  • AME* — 2
  • Anglican — 1
  • Assembly of God — 4
  • Baptist — 67
  • Buddhist — 2
  • Christian** — 18
  • Christian Reformed — 2
  • Christian Scientist — 5
  • Church of Christ — 2
  • Church of God — 1
  • Church of the Nazarene — 1
  • Congregationalist — 1
  • Congregationalist – Baptist — 1
  • Disciples of Christ — 2
  • Eastern Orthodox — 5
  • Episcopalian — 37
  • Evangelical — 2
  • Evangelical Lutheran — 1
  • Evangelical Methodist — 1
  • Jewish — 43
  • LDS (Mormon) — 15
  • Reorganized LDS — 1
  • Lutheran — 17
  • Methodist — 61
  • Muslim — 1
  • Presbyterian — 44
  • Protestant** — 26
  • Quaker — 1
  • Roman Catholic — 154
  • Seventh-day Adventist — 2
  • Unitarian — 2
  • United Church of Christ — 6
  • unaffiliated — 6

*African Methodist Episcopal
**no denomination stated

Source: Count of religious affiliations of members of Congress compiled from self-identification in Congressional Quarterly profiles of each member. Totals do not include results of Dec. 12, 2006, runoff election in Texas’ 23rd Congressional District.