Jewish Journal

The diverse religious makeup of the 111th Congress

by Brad A. Greenberg

January 6, 2009 | 7:08 pm

Serving in the House and the Senate is no longer just a Protestant party.

Two years ago, Keith Ellison became Congress’ first Muslim member; shortly after Rep. Pete Stark outed himself as Congress’ first openly atheist elected official. The 110th Congress also saw the arrival of two Buddhist politicians, another first. Those Buddhists, as well as Ellison and another Muslim, are back for the 111th Congress, which began today and the Pew Forum says looks a lot more like the people it represents:

Although a majority of the members of the new, 111th Congress, which will be sworn in on Jan. 6, are Protestants, Congress - like the nation as a whole - is much more religiously diverse than it was 50 years ago.

Lots of numbers and charts here. They serve as the basis of this article in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times:

“We see much more acceptance of religious groups that have in the past . . . suffered some prejudice,” said David Masci, a senior research fellow at the Pew Forum and coauthor of the report.

Catholics, at just less than 24% of the U.S. population, have gained more congressional seats since 1961 than any other religious affiliation, the report found. At 1.7% of the population each, Jews and Mormons make up 8.4% and 2.6% of Congress, respectively.

When Kennedy was elected, Protestants accounted for most of Congress—74.1%. Though their numbers have declined, they still form a majority at 54.7%, slightly higher than their 51.3% of the population.

Since the 87th Congress was seated in 1961, many major Protestant denominations have slipped in numbers, including Methodists, at 10.7% now and 18.2% then; Presbyterians, at 8.1% compared to 13.7%; and Episcopalians, who dropped to 7.1% from 12.4%. But when compared to the population, these three denominations still are overrepresented on Capitol Hill.

Yet other Protestant denominations are underrepresented: Baptists make up 17.2% of Americans but 12.4% of the House and Senate. Pentecostalists are 4.4% of the population but 0.4% of congressional lawmakers. ...

“I think there’s an incentive, certainly, for a politician to have some sort of a religious affiliation,” Masci said. Americans, he said, have “a desire to have people in office who, to at least to some degree, reflect your own belief.”

In case you’re new to the blog, I don’t put much stock in a politician’s professed religious values. Read my past bloviations here and here and here; there are plenty more but I can’t find them at present.

P.S. Good riddance to all the folks who during the past eight years exploited religious sympathies for power. And a not-so-fond farewell to Dick Cheney, who considers himself Methodist.

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