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Congress has grown more religiously diverse

Study finds few are unaffiliated on Capitol Hill

By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / December 20, 2008
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Protestants still constitute a majority of the Congress of the United States, but in terms of religious beliefs, the House and Senate, just like the constituencies they represent, are more diverse than they were nearly a half-century ago, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The Pew study, called "Faith on the Hill" among members of the incoming 111th Congress, found that Catholics, Jews, and Mormons are among religious groups better represented in Congress than in the nation as a whole. The most glaring difference between the makeup of the new Congress, which will be sworn in Jan. 6, and the population is among those who are not affiliated with any religious tradition.

Only five members of the new Congress - less than one percent - "did not specify a religious affiliation, according to information gathered by Congressional Quarterly and the Pew Forum, and no members specifically said they were unaffiliated." By contrast, a recent Pew survey of more than 35,000 Americans, found that about one in six - 16.1 percent - said they are not affiliated with any faith.

Protestants make up 51.3 percent of the population and will occupy 54.7 percent of the seats in the next Congress. Among more than a dozen Protestant denominations, Baptists will be underrepresented (12.4 percent of Congress; 17.2 percent of the population). Other groups will be overrepresented: Methodists (10.7 percent of Congress; 6.2 percent of the population), Presbyterians (8.1 percent of Congress; 2.7 percent of the population), and Anglicans/Episcopalians (7.1 percent of Congress; 2.7 percent of the population).

Similarly, Catholics make up 23.9 percent of the population and 30.1 percent of the incoming Congress. Jews constitute 1.7 percent of the population and 8.4 percent of Congress, and Mormons are 1.7 percent of the population and 2.6 percent of Congress. Orthodox Christians make up .6 percent of the population and 1.3 percent of Congress.

From faiths making up less than one percent of the US population, there will be two Buddhists, two Muslims, and zero Hindus or Jehovah's Witnesses, the research showed.

Representatives Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia, and Mazie K. Hirono, Democrat of Hawaii, will become Congress's first Buddhists when they are sworn in, the report said.

Since the 1960 election, the percentage of Protestants in Congress has declined by 19.4 percentage points, from 74.1 percent to 51.3 percent; Catholics have increased by nearly a dozen percentage points, from 18.8 percent; Jews have more than tripled their percentage, from 2.3 percent; and the percentage of Mormons in Congress has doubled, from 1.3 percent.

By party affiliation, 70.8 percent of Republican members of Congress are Protestant, compared to 43.6 percent of the larger Democratic contingent. Conversely, 36.6 percent of Democrats are Catholic, contrasted to 21 percent of Republicans. Among Democrats, 13.4 percent, are Jewish, including the two independents who caucus with the Democrats, but less than one percent of Republicans are Jewish. Mormons lean strongly to the GOP side, making up 4.6 percent of the Republicans in Congress but 1.3 percent of the Democrats.

The Buddhists and Muslim members of Congress, as well as all five of the members who did not specify a religious affiliation, are Democrats, the report states.

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