Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Incoming U.S. Congress Will Be Most Religiously Diverse Yet

There are many ways in which the U.S. Congress, especially the Senate, is far from a truly representative body(ies).  Women are 51% of the nation, for instance, but there are only 16 in the U.S. Senate (out of 100) and, if Hillary Clinton (D-NY) is not replaced by another woman if/when she is confirmed as Secretary of State,  that will be reduced to 15.  There are only 2 Latinos in the Senate and one of them is retiring in 2010.  The election of Barack Obama as president reduced the number of African-Americans in the Senate from 1 to zero (although, if Gov. Blagojevich’s nomination of former IL Atty.  Gen Burris is allowed to stand, there will still be 1).  There are two Asians in the Senate, both from Hawai’i. In many ways, Congress, especially the Senate, still bears more resemblance  to an exclusive country club than to a legislative body truly representative of U.S. society and the American people.

This is also true religiously.  For much of our history, Congress was dominated by Episcopalians, Presbyterians,  and Congregationalists–far more than proportionate for their percentages of the population.  But that is changing and the incoming (111th) Congress will be the most religiously diverse, yet–more closely representing the American people.  A new study by the Pew Forum on Faith and  Public Life shows  that, like the nation, the new Congress will be far more religiously diverse than 50 years ago. 


  • Although 16.1% of the U.S.  public refuse to specify a religion on surveys, only 5 members of the new Congress (1 %) refused to specify.  Only 1 member, Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA), specifically calls himself  a non-theist (he does not believe in a Supreme Being) and he is a member of the Unitarian-Universalist.
  • 54.7% of the new Congress is Protestant, which is slightly over-representative since 51.3% of U.S. adults say they are Protestant. (Try finding that  many in Protestant churches on any given Sunday–that’s another matter!)
  • Roman Catholics,  who are slightly less than 1/4 of the nation (the largest single denomination –23.9%–of this once overwhelmingly Protestant nation), make up 30% of the next Congress.  This is a major increase from 1961 (the year John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the first Catholic president) when only 19% of  Congress was Catholic.  Catholics make up 37% of the incoming Senate, but only 21% of the House of Representatives. (Does this mean that we like  Catholics better in statewide federal races than in our individual districts?)
  • Baptists are the 2nd most populous group in Congress (12.4%), but this is less than our share of the national population (17.2%). The study does not break that down into particular Baptist groupings.
  • Methodists are 10.7% of Congress, but only 6.2% of the population.
  • While Episcopalians do not have the huge dominance of Congress they once did, they still are vastly overrepresented.  The new Congress will have 7.1% Episcopal (Anglican) members, but only 1.5% of the U.S.  public shares their faith.
  • Likewise, while only 2.7% of the public continues to claim itself as Presbyterian (way down from earlier periods of U.S. history), they will still form 8.1% of the incoming Congress.
  • Orthodox Christians make up 0.6% of our population but 1.3% of the new Congress.
  • Jews are 1.7% of the U.S. public, but 2.6% of the new Congress.  This may make American Jews the most over-represented religious group in Congress.  Needless to say, this has not always been the case.  The first Jewish member of Congress was not sworn in until 1845.
  • Mormons, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints also form 1.7% of the U.S. population, but 2.6% of the incoming Congress. (I’d like to see geographic breakdown here. The Mormon population is heavily concentrated in the Southwest, especially Utah, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada.  Are the majority of Congressional Mormons from these areas or more evenly spread out?)  The first Mormon member of Congress arrived in 1851.
  • In the previous Congress (110th), America elected its first 2 Muslim Congressmen.  Rep.  Keith Ellison (D-MN) was elected in November ’06 and sworn in January of  ’07 using a Qu’ran that once belonged to President Thomas Jefferson. (For non–U.S. readers, Jefferson was the author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, founder of the University of Virginia, and the Third President of the United States.) This year, in a special election, Andre Carson (D-IN) became the 2nd Muslim elected to Congress in March.  Both Muslim Congressman will be returning in the 111th Congress.  Muslims make up 0.6% of the U.S. public and now make up 0.4% of Congress–which is not bad considering how much of the public still equates “Muslim” with “terrorist”–a false equation encouraged by much of the media and many politicians.  (Congratulations as well to Rep. Keith Ellison–during Ramadan of ’08, he completed his first Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca–a major requirement for all Muslims who have the financial means to make the trip.)
  • The 110th Congress also saw the arrival of the first Buddhist members of Congress: Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), an adult convert to Buddhism and Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), who was born in Japan and calls herself a non-practicing Buddhist.  Both Reps. Hirono and Johnson were re-elected to the 111th Congress. Buddhists make up 0.7% of the U.S. population and now 0.4% of Congress.
  • There are no Anabaptist-related Christians in Congress–which is hardly surprising considering that Anabaptist understandings of church-state separation tend to be even stricter than Baptist ones and Anabaptist groups like Mennonites have usually been apolitical.
  • Some religious groups in the U.S. such as Hindus,  Wiccans, practitioners of traditional Native American religions, etc. have never been represented in Congress. (We have had one Sikh member, a California Democrat named Rep. Dalip Singh Saund, who was elected in 1956 and began serving in ’57.)
  • A few groups are more lopsided in one chamber or the other:  Jews make up 13% of the new Senate, but only 7.4% of the House.  Likewise, Mormons are 5% of the new Senate, but only 2.1% of the House.  On the other hand, Baptists make up 13.3% of the House of Representatives, but only 8% of the Senate. (I would venture to guess that the latter is because many of the Congressional Baptists are African-American and thus are almost exclusively found in the House–usually representing districts where African-Americans are in the majority.)
  • Party affiliation shows other religious disparities:  70.8% of Congressional Republicans are Protestant, while only 43.6% of Congressional Democrats are Protestant.  (Protestants are 51% of the nation–so the GOP is over-representative of Protestants and Democrats under-representative.) 36.6% of Congressional Catholics are Democratic, but only 21% of Congressional Republicans are Catholic.  Jews are 13.4% of all Congressional Democrats, but only 0.9% of Congressional Republicans (1 Jewish GOP member in each chamber). 

So, at least religiously, Congress is becoming far more representative of American diversity.  If Congress were diversifying at the racial/ethnic or gender level as quickly, we might really begin to see a new face for America.


January 1, 2009 - Posted by | U.S. politics


  1. I welcome the religious diversity. I just hope and pray that conscience will prevail in decision making that affects our nation.

    Comment by Paul | January 1, 2009

  2. Regarding Anabaptist views on church-state, I read a pretty decent book in 2008 called “Church, State, and Public Justice: Five Views.” It is an edited volume that includes Clarke Cochran (Catholic), Corwin Schmidt (Kuyperian Structural Pluralist), Derek Davis (Baptist Separationist), Ron Sider (Anabaptist) and Philip Woggaman (Mainline).

    I’ve studied Anabaptist views on church-state and agree that they are quite strict in many respects. But in the book above, Sider presents his positions on church-state which are extremely accommodationist as mainstream Anabaptist. In his recent book, Gushee describes Sider as part of the Evangelical Right when it comes to church-state philosophy. Sider also tries to present Anabaptists as more political than I think they really are.

    Do you think Sider is really a good representative of what a majority of Anabaptists believe on church-state? I guess what I don’t know is, how much diversity exists among Anabaptists on these questions? Are they as diverse on church-state views as Baptists?

    Comment by Big Daddy Weave | January 1, 2009

  3. Speaking of the Baptist stats from the Pew Forum, I have compiled a list of all the Baptists in the 111th Congress, researched their church membership and where possible the denominational affiliation of those churches.

    It’s a little frustrating when religion journalists equate Baptist with Southern Baptist. Dan Gilgoff did that recently on his post about the Pew Forum study, a sloppy mistake on his part. Less than half of the 58 House Baptists attend Southern Baptist Congregations. I think I found that 50 percent of Baptists in the Senate are SBC.

    There are a large number of Black Baptists in the House, about 33 percent. The remaining 20 percent or so of House Baptists are divided up among various different Baptist groups.

    There are some Baptists that we would consider heroes like Barbara Lee and John Lewis. But, I probably wouldn’t vote for a majority of the folks on that list including a number of Democrats.

    One thing I discovered in my research (which I plan to post on Monday) is that it is extremely difficult to determine where many of the African-Americans hold membership. Many of the Black Baptists in Congress attend more than one church in their district. Some even tithe to multiple churches.

    Comment by Big Daddy Weave | January 1, 2009

  4. Aaron, no, by his own admission Sider’s church-state views are more like other conservative evangelicals than like those of his fellow Mennonites.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 2, 2009

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