Congress' religion: Not so old-time now

January 07, 2007|By Jonathan Tilove | Jonathan Tilove,Newhouse News Service

Washington -- The new Congress includes, for the first time, 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 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 new 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, though there are such notable exceptions as House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland and Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. Byrd, first elected in 1958 when white Baptist Democrats were commonplace, will serve as president pro tem in the new Senate, making him third in succession to the presidency.

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, another Catholic.

In the new Congress, two-thirds of all Catholic members are 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 affiliation of members of Congress since 1972.

Menendez bases his count on the way 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 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 - and especially Episcopalians and Presbyterians - continue to be better represented on Capitol Hill than among the general population.

Other historically important denominations have suffered steep declines in Congress. Menendez said the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964 brought 14 Unitarians to Washington. In this Congress there are two - Rep. Pete Stark, a California Democrat, and Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat. In the late 1960s there were 29 members of the United Church of Christ in Congress. In the new Congress, there are only six, including Sen. Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, 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 1 percent of 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.

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