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The New Congress: Fewer Christians But Still Religious

Jan 3, 2019
Originally published on January 3, 2019 5:00 pm

The membership of the incoming U.S. Congress is somewhat less religious and more diverse than that of the preceding Congress, though the changes are almost entirely on the Democratic side.

A poll of the religious composition of the new Congress by the Pew Research Center and CQ Roll Call finds that more than 99 percent of the Republican members identify as Christian, as opposed to 78 percent of the Democrats. In both parties, Christians are overrepresented, according to Pew, given that just 71 percent of all U.S. adults describe themselves as Christians.

The poll results, based on the members' own reporting of their faith identities, reflect broader demographic and cultural changes in the United States but also the abiding importance of religion in American politics.

One notable finding is that members of Congress are more likely to claim a religious affiliation than is the public at large. Numerous surveys have shown a sharp increase in the number of Americans who say they do not identify with any particular religious tradition, but that trend is less apparent among those elected to Congress. The Pew poll found just one member, Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, reporting no affiliation at all, whereas 23 percent of all U.S. adults so identify.

[P]oliticians change more slowly than the public in many ways and don't want to court potential trouble with voters by admitting that they don't have any kind of religious affiliation. - John Green, senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life

One possible explanation is that candidates for office are hesitant to say they don't have a faith tradition, for fear of voter disapproval. A 2016 Pew survey found that 51 percent of U.S. adults said they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who does not believe in God. While that share has declined in recent years, it may still be high enough to make candidates wary of declaring their lack of belief.

"I think some of this is just that politicians change more slowly than the public in many ways and don't want to court potential trouble with voters by admitting that they don't have any kind of religious affiliation," says John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron and a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Whether members of Congress are genuinely more faithful than the public at large or simply reluctant to express skepticism about religion is not clear from the Pew poll. Eighty members describe themselves generally as "Christian" but do not specify a particular denomination. Eighteen others refused to answer questions about their faith identity. Among them was Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., who in 2017 declared himself to be a humanist and said he is not sure there is a God.

"I don't believe in religious tests," Huffman told The Washington Post, "and I don't believe my religion is all that important to the people I represent, and I think there's too much religion in politics."

Faith and community

It is also possible that politicians are, in fact, more likely to be tied to a faith tradition than the general public might be.

"Political leaders tend to be deeply embedded in the institutional life of their communities," says Green. "They are much more likely to belong to the Rotary Club or be members of a charity or a professional association, and in most places in the United States, religious institutions are part of the local community infrastructure."

Given those factors, Green says, "It would not be surprising that [politicians] are more involved in religious institutions than the voters they represent simply because of the way one becomes an elected official, which is by networking with other leaders in the community."

Some of the findings from the Pew survey are consistent with earlier polls. Protestants continue to dominate the Congress, accounting for 55 percent of the membership, with Baptists the largest single Protestant denomination. The share of Catholics among the members is largely unchanged, at about 30 percent, though relatively more of the Catholic members are Democrats than in previous years.

Like the rest of U.S. society, however, the new Congress is a bit more diverse, with Christians making up 88 percent of the membership, down from 91 percent. Among the non-Christian members are 34 Jews, three Muslims, three Hindus, two Buddhists, and two identifying as Unitarian Universalist.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The new Congress sworn in today is a bit less religious and the outgoing Congress, but the members may not want to admit it. A poll by the Pew Research Center finds the number of self-identified Christians in Congress has dropped slightly. The number of members who refused to divulge their faith identity, meanwhile, is up sharply. More from NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: For the last 20 years, the Pew Research Center and CQ Roll Call have asked members of a new Congress about their religious affiliation. The results this year reflect broader demographic and cultural changes in the country but also the abiding importance of religion in American politics. What's especially notable this year is how few members say they have no religious affiliation. Among U.S. adults as a whole, nearly 1 in 4 say that, but this year's poll found just one member, Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, reporting no affiliation. Political scientist John Green at the University of Akron says some members may think it's bad politically to say they're not churchgoers.

JOHN GREEN: Some of this, I think, is just that politicians change more slowly than the public and don't want to court potential trouble with voters by admitting that they don't have any kind of religious affiliation.

GJELTEN: In other surveys, a majority of U.S. voters have said they'd be less likely to vote for a candidate who doesn't believe in God, so politicians may not want to make any such announcement. It's not necessarily that they're more faithful than the general public. In the latest survey, 18 members simply refuse to answer the question about their religious identity. On the other hand, it's also possible that members of Congress really are more religious than other Americans. John Green, who is also a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, notes that politicians tend to be especially active in community institutions.

GREEN: They're much more likely to go onto the rotary club or members of a charity or a professional association. And in most places in the United States, religious institutions are part of the local community infrastructure.

GJELTEN: The candidates most likely to win elections are the ones who network in their communities, Green says, and churches are a place where they can do that. One other notable finding from this poll - the new Congress is a bit more diverse than the old one, with 34 Jews, three Muslims, three Hindus, two Buddhists and two identifying as Unitarian Universalists. Of those non-Christian members, all but two are Democrats. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.