This week, millions of Americans are observing Passover or attending Holy Week religious services. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that this is a sacred week as well for a vast majority of members of Congress, 97.5 percent of whom identify as Christian or Jewish. These statistics show that Congress’ religious demography is similar to that of the larger American public. However, there are significant discrepancies that shed light on the complicated intersection of faith and politics in America.
The religious demography of the 112th Congress hews relatively close to that of the larger U.S. population. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 56.8 percent of members of Congress are Protestants and 29.2 percent are Catholics, compared to 51.3 and 23.9 percent, respectively, for all adults in the United States. The breakdown of Protestant sects is also similar between the two populations, with Baptists and Methodists the largest denominations both among Congress members and American adults. The congressional Jewish population, while small, is slightly larger than the Jewish share of the total population: 7.3 percent of members of Congress are Jewish, compared to 1.7 percent of the U.S. adult population.
However, it appears that Congress as a whole is more religious than the American public. The largest disparity between Congress and its constituents in terms of religion is in the category of people who claim they are religiously “unaffiliated.” Just over 16 percent of Americans put themselves in this category, compared to zero members of Congress.
According to John Green, professor of political science at the University of Akron, claiming a faith but keeping it quiet can position a politician favorably for both religious and non-religious voters. “There are a lot of candidates who are getting the support of non-religious people by not talking about these [faith] issues, and they’re also not offending religious people by saying, ‘Look; this stuff doesn’t matter to me.’”
While members of Congress avoid claiming no religion, there is a striking partisan divide in terms of faith traditions. Taken as a group, Republican members are more Christian and less religiously diverse than their Democratic counterparts, with nearly 69 percent of GOPers claiming a Protestant faith, along with 24.9 percent who are Catholics. In contrast, fewer than half of Democratic members--43.1 percent--are Protestant, while 34.1 percent are Catholic. According to Pew, there is only one Republican member of Congress who claims a non-Christian faith. That title goes to Virginia Republican Rep. Eric Cantor, who is Jewish. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, claims a far greater variety of non-Christian members, including 38 Jews, three Buddhists, two Muslims, and two adherents of “other faiths” not specified in Pew’s results. Six Democrats also either responded that they “don’t know” or refused to answer.
This split is also evident among voters, according to 2010 National Election Pool exit polls (reported by CNN), which showed that Christians decidedly tend to vote Republican. Fifty-nine percent of Protestants and 54 percent of Catholics chose the Republican House candidates in their districts, while 74 percent of people claiming an “other” religion and 68 percent claiming no religion chose Democrats.
According to Green, this religious connection between voters and politicians is a two-way relationship, with each side working to appeal to the other, whether it’s for votes or policy. “Politicians, particularly elected officials, are in the business of appealing to voters. Religion is one of the means by which one can appeal to voters,” says Green. “But at the same time, religious groups, and particularly the leaders of religious communities, and political groups, also try to forge those alliances.” He uses as an example Christian pro-life groups that pressure Republican politicians on abortion issues, or liberal religious groups advocating for the poor to Democratic members of Congress.
America’s apparent religious partisan divide in may not be a function of conscious voter choices, but more of sociology. For example, says Green, “black Protestants [who tend to vote Democratic] don’t talk about politics in worship,” and “white evangelicals [who tend to vote Republican] may not think about how Jesus’ teachings affect the economy.” Yet faith communities also serve as gathering places, where people socialize and within which they may form a sense of identity. “When those people get together to worship, they tend to reinforce their partisanship. ... Any given person might not have thought this through, but they belong to a group that has a certain affiliation,” says Green.
In other words, the many Americans who have gone to Seder or the sanctuary this week may find their political ideologies bolstered alongside their religious beliefs.