The Political World Is Finally Starting to Reflect America’s Religious Diversity

Kyrsten Sinema takes her oath on a lawbook rather than the Bible as she becomes the first religiously unaffiliated Senator. This may have bothered Mike Pence. Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP/Getty Images

It’s no big secret that the U.S. is becoming steadily more diverse religiously, as well as racially and ethnically, with the rise of non-Christians and the religiously unaffiliated being particularly notable in recent years. Our politicians tend to be less adventurous, or at least less forthcoming, than other famous public figures, but according to Pew’s new survey of the religious composition of the 166th Congress, it appears they’re moving in the same direction:

Over the 11 congresses for which Pew Research Center has data, the 116th has the lowest number of both Christians (471) and Protestants (293) …

Catholics have held steady at 31% over the last four congresses, although there are now many more Catholics in Congress than there were in the first Congress for which Pew Research Center has data (19% in the 87th Congress, which began in 1961). The share of Jewish members also has increased markedly since the early ’60s.

But there’s still a big gap between the U.S. population and its congressional representatives when it comes to those who acknowledge no organized religious affiliation at all:

In the general public, 23% say they are atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” In Congress, just one person — Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who was recently elected to the Senate after three terms in the House — says she is religiously unaffiliated, making the share of “nones” in Congress 0.2%.

When asked about their religious affiliation, a growing number of members of Congress decline to specify (categorized as “don’t know/refused”). This group — all Democrats — numbers 18, or 3% of Congress, up from 10 members (2%) in the 115th Congress. 

This Congress also has the first two Muslim women to serve as Members. There are 34 Jews, two Buddhists and three Hindus.

Nearly all the religious diversity, however, is occurring in one party. With the exception of the two Jewish Republicans in the House, all of Congress’s non-Christians and religiously unspecified members are Democrats. Professed Christians are over-represented in both parties’ congressional ranks:

 While 78% of Democrats in Congress identify as Christians, among registered voters in the broader U.S. adult population, the share of Democrats and those who lean toward the Democratic Party who identify as Christians is just 57%.

Among Republicans and those who lean toward the Republican Party in the general public, 82% of registered voters are Christians, compared with about 99% of Republicans in Congress. 

Given Democrats’ religious diversity advantage over Republicans, it’s interesting to take a look at the large field forming for the 2020 presidential nomination from this perspective.

Not long ago, it was newsworthy when a Catholic ran for president. Joe Biden, Julian Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Beto O’Rourke (plus, according to some accounts, Steve Bullock) are all Catholics, giving 2020 a good look. Up until now, Joe Lieberman in 2000 and Bernie Sanders in 2016 were the only Jews to make a serious presidential bid. Michael Bloomberg and Eric Garcetti (who identifies as both Latino and Jewish) could join Sanders in the 2020 field. Tulsi Gabbard is Hindu. Kamala Harris spent some time in Hindu temples growing up as well, with her Indian-American mother; she and Cory Booker are both formally members of the predominantly African-American National Baptist Convention. John Hickenlooper is a Quaker.

There are some representatives of the old WASP mainline Protestant faith communities. Sherrod Brown is a Methodist. Elizabeth Warren is a former Methodist who now goes to “various” churches. Tom Steyer and Pete Buttigieg are Episcopalians. Amy Klobuchar and Seth Moulton belong to the United Church of Christ (a.k.a. Congregationalists). Jay Inslee and Eric Swalwell are non-denominational Protestants. There’s nary a Luthern, a Presbyterian, a conservative evangelical, or a religious “none” in the bunch, but the campaign cycle is young.

It’s tempting to call the famously profane president a religious “none,” if not an adherent of some ancient heathen cult that worships power and wealth. He is technically a Presbyterian who has encouraged his intense conservative evangelical following to believe he is one of them by adoption or by some sort of divine dispensation that “uses” him to further their idea of the Kingdom of God as a return to 1950s white patriarchal culture.

In any event, it’s unlikely any of the Democrats (with the possible exception of Cory Booker) will make religious faith an element of her or his campaign message, and Trump will let his vice president and “advisers” like Jerry Falwell Jr. carry his water among the faithful. Republicans will continue to treat Democrats as a whole as hostile to religion despite their relatively high levels of religious self-identification. And gradually the political class — with or without Republican elected officials — will continue the U.S. population’s trend towards religious and irreligious diversity. America remains the most religiously observant of materially advanced societies. But there’s no longer a virtual religious monopoly in the population or even on Capitol Hill.

Political World Now Reflecting America’s Religious Diversity