Congress is still really religious and really Christian

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Congress convenes its first session of the 114th Congress on Tuesday with Republicans controlling both the House and Senate. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Congress convenes its first session of the 114th Congress on Tuesday with Republicans controlling both the House and Senate. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Despite a growing number of Americans who say they are religiously unaffiliated, Congress is dominated by those who identify with a religion.

One out of every five Americans, or 20 percent, say they either do not identify with a religion, are agnostic or are atheist, according to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. That is on the rise, up from 15 percent in 2007.

Yet, just one member of Congress says she is unaffiliated with any religion — Democratic Rep. Krysten Sinema of Arizona. She is the first person to serve in Congress to describe her religion as “none.” (Nine others, or two percent of Congress, identify as “don’t know” or “refused to answer.”)

As Congress is set to begin its new session Tuesday, it remains overwhelmingly religious and overwhelmingly Christian, outpacing society at large, according to an analysis conducted by Pew and CQ Roll Call.

Ninety-two percent of lawmakers in the new Congress identify as Christian, far ahead of the 73 percent of American adults who say so.

The Religious Makeup of the 114th Congress

Of those identifying as Christian, Protestants and Catholics lead the way. The largest contingency continues to be Protestants, who make up 57 percent of the incoming Congress. That’s more than the fewer than half of Americans – 49 percent – who identify as Protestant. Catholics are 31 percent of the new Congress, ahead of the 22 percent that identify as Catholic at large.

Though the percentage of Protestants continues to be the highest in Congress, it is actually down from the 1960s when three-quarters of Congress identified as such.

Changed in the Religious Makeup of Congress (1961-2015)

Some other numbers of note:

  • 28 Jewish members, or 5 percent of Congress, which is ahead of the 2 percent of the country that identifies as Jewish. But that 28 is actually 11 fewer than in the 112th Congress.
  • 7 ordained ministers are members of Congress
  • 2 Buddhists (down from three in the last Congress)
  • 2 Muslims (or 0.4 percent, which is slightly off from the just 1 percent of Americans who identify as Muslim)
  • 1 Hindu
  • 1 Unitarian Universalist

To be expected, there is a big party split. Of the 301 Republicans, 300 are Christian, including 81 Catholics and 14 Mormons. Just Lee Zeldin of New York’s first congressional district is Jewish. In last Congress, there was also one Jewish Republican — Eric Cantor of Virginia. But the House leader lost in a stunning primary upset in 2014.

Democrats are slightly more religiously diverse with 80 percent (187 of 234) identifying as Christian, including 104 Protestants, 83 Catholics, and two Mormons, as well as 27 Jewish members, two who are Buddhist, two Muslim, one Hindu and Sinema, who does not identify with a religion.

The bottom line though is that it is very difficult to get elected in most places without having a religious affiliation. And, as is the case with racial and ethnic minorities, candidates are trying to win a majority of a district. That’s why it continues to be difficult for underrepresented groups to win seats in Congress.

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