No Nones in Congress?

January 8, 2011

The other day the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published Faith on the Hill, a study comparing the religious affiliations of members of our new Congress with those of the general public. I first became aware of it via this post on Friendly Atheist; then today Charles Blow did an op-ed on it in the NY Times, so I figured I really should mention it here.

Interestingly, the Times piece picked up on the same detail which – understandably – concerned our atheist friend: the total lack of any representation for the growing minority of religiously unaffiliated, a category including atheists, agnostics, seekers, spiritual-but-not-religious, etc. As the Pew article puts it,

Perhaps the greatest disparity between the religious makeup of Congress and the people it represents, however, is in the percentage of the unaffiliated – those who describe their religion as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” According to information gathered by CQ Roll Call and the Pew Forum, no members of Congress say they are unaffiliated. By contrast, about one-sixth of U.S. adults (16%) are not affiliated with any particular faith. Only six members of the 112th Congress (about 1%) do not specify a religious affiliation, which is similar to the percentage of the public that says they don’t know or refuses to specify their faith.

(However, one of the two Unitarian Universalists listed in the summary table as “Other Faiths,” Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA), has declared that he doesn’t believe in a Supreme Being; and six members of Congress have simply declined to answer the question.)

“For perspective,” Blow observes

there are almost two-thirds as many unaffiliated people as there are Catholics in this country and nearly as many as there are Baptists. Their number is more than twice that of Methodists, and more than nine times the numbers of Jews or Mormons.

He adds,

I don’t for a second believe that all those members are religious. I believe some are trapped in the religious closet of American politics where nonbelief is a nonstarter. It’s not only seen as unholy, it’s also seen as un-American.

Now, the growth in the None population is relatively recent and concentrated among the young, and so it can be expected that in future decades it will become increasingly acceptable for an “out” non-affiliate to run for office. Other minorities have also faced a certain lag-time in gaining a fair reflection of their numbers in Congress; and for a long time after women obtained the vote there were never more than two of them in the Senate at once, but now no-one seems to think twice about voting for one.

The survey includes a table showing changes in congressional religion over the past 50 years, and a number of these are of interest: the largest growth in representation has been for Catholics (Latinos?), followed by “unspecified Protestants” (non-denominational evangelicals?) and Jews; Baptists and Lutherans have trended slightly up, while Methodists and Presbyterians have declined drastically (170 between them in ’61, 95 today), Episcopalians slightly less so (from 66 to 41), and Congregationalists have virtually been wiped out (from 27 to 4). The first Muslim and Buddhist members joined Congress in 2007, the same year Rep. Stark “came out.”

In a similar vein, it has been noted that with the retirement of Justice Stevens last year there are no remaining Protestants on the Supreme Court.



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