The Religious Makeup of Congress: A New Portrait

The Pew Forum for Religion & Public life released a portrait of the religious composition of Congress.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

The Pew Forum for Religion & Public Life has released a fascinating new portrait of the religious composition of the U.S. Congress. The most significant finding may be that Congress is much more religious and much more affiliated with particular religious traditions than are Americans at large. What does that say about American voters? More on that in a bit.

First, some of the other major findings in the survey:

Certain religious groups are vastly overrepresented in Congress. Jews represent just 1.4 percent of the adult American population, but claim 8.4 percent of the seats in Congress, with 45 representatives and senators. Other overrepresented groups include Catholics, Mormons, and a handful of Protestant denominations: Anglicans/Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists.

Congress has become much more religiously diverse in the last half century, just like the rest of America has. In 1961, Protestants claimed 74.1 percent of the seats in Congress; today, it's 54.7 percent. Today, 51.3 percent of Americans identify as Protestant. The Pew report doesn't say so, but the trend likely represents forces beyond demographics, too, like the political empowerment of Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and other groups and declining levels of discrimination toward such groups

Evangelicals are underrepresented in Congress. Southern Baptists , the biggest evangelical denomination, represent 17.2 percent of the adult population but just 12.4 percent of Congress. Other theologically conservative Protestant traditions are also underrepresented on Capitol Hill: Pentecostal and nondenominational Protestants—like evangelicals—each account for roughly 4.5 percent of the American adult population but for hold fewer than 1 percent of the seats in Congress. For all the ink spilled and controversy generated over the growing evangelical/Pentecostal clout in American politics, it's this family of traditions that appears to be the most underrepresented in Washington.

Ironically, the other major religious tradition to be vastly underrepresented in Congress is the traditional political foe of evangelicals: the nonaffiliated. From the methodology on the Pew survey, this category appears to comprise mostly nonbelievers. It claims just over 16 percent of Americans, making them roughly size equivalent to the Southern Baptists.

Guess what share of congressional seats the nonaffiliated hold?

Zero. Nada. Not one seat in either the Senate or the House.

How can this be? Maybe American voters want their elected leaders to be religious and identifiable with established religious traditions, even if they themselves are not. Or maybe that's just the perception that politicians have. Could it be that nonaffiliated voters are much more tolerant of religious candidates than religious voters are of secular candidates? Or do religious Americans vote in much higher numbers than the nonaffiliated?

Post your own theory in comments.

  • Read more by Dan Gilgoff.
  • Read more about Congress.