When the 113th Congress is sworn in today, its new members will include the first Hindu member of Congress and the first Buddhist to serve as senator. Also for the first time, Congress will welcome a member who describes her religion as "none."
Democratic Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who was raised a Mormon, is religiously unaffiliated but does not describe herself as an atheist. Her campaign was unavailable for comment to Whispers due to the swearing in, but spokesman Justin Unga told the Religion News Service in November that Sinema favors a "secular approach." He told the New York Times the same month that Sinema "believes the terms 'nontheist,' 'atheist' or 'nonbeliever' are not befitting of her life's work or personal character."
Despite the clear distinction, both secular and atheist groups have cheered her rise to Congress. In March 2011, The Center for Inquiry presented the Arizona attorney and professor with its Award for the Advancement of Science and Reason in Public Policy, which "recognizes legislators who support public policy based on scientific thinking" while "maintaining church-state separation," according to its web site.
In October 2010, Sinema spoke at the opening of the nontheistic Secular Coalition for Arizona.
Although Sinema is the first member of Congress to declare her religious affiliation as "none," a Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life analysis out Thursday notes that 10 other members of the new Congress declined to provide any indication of religious leanings. That means that about 2 percent of the 113th Congress hasn't declared a religious affiliation, up from about 1 percent in the prior Congress.
And the increasingly secular Congress reflects an increasingly secular American public.
"Apparently, a growing number of Americans are running from organized religion, but by no means running from God ... 'Nones' are the undecided of the religious world," wrote author and journalist Eric Weiner in a New York Times op-ed in December 2011 of the rise of the "nones"—the 12 percent of Americans with no religious affiliation. "[Some] think politics is to blame. Their idea is that we've mixed politics and religion so completely that many simply opt out of both."
Sinema, it seems, has shown it's possible to opt into one but not the other.
Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.