Religion And Congress: Scholars Say Congress Is Becoming More Pluralistic

"I never told my own religion, nor scrutinized that of another." –Thomas Jefferson

Andre Carson is a Muslim. Jared Polis is Jewish. Dina Titus is Greek Orthodox.

Does it matter? Maybe. Maybe not.

Carson, Polis and Titus are three members of the 111th Congress. On Jan. 6, they and their 532 colleagues will be sworn into office. They will hold hearings, draft legislation and enact laws that affect all of us. Their religious affiliations are important only to them, as long as they respect the constitutional separation of church and state.

According to a survey of Congress released on Friday by the Pew Forum, senators and representatives come from a pretty formidable array of religious viewpoints. Roman Catholics are the single largest bloc of adherents with 161, followed by Baptists (66), Methodists (57), Jews (45), Presbyterians (43), Episcopalians (38) and Lutherans (24).

Most members of Congress profess some affiliation with the Christian tradition. But there are also two Buddhists, two Muslims and three Unitarians.

Five members didn't express a preference for any particular faith.

I think Thomas Jefferson might have taken that course had Pew asked his religion. He vociferously championed individual religious liberty and regarded his religious beliefs – and that of others – as a private matter.

In an Aug. 16, 1816 letter to Mrs. Samuel H. Smith, Jefferson had this to say: "I have ever thought religion a concern purely between our God and our consciences, for which we were accountable to him, and not to the priests. I never told my own religion, nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another's creed.

"I have ever judged of the religion of others by their lives," Jefferson continued, "and by this test, my dear Madam, I have been satisfied yours must be an excellent one, to have produced a life of such exemplary virtue and correctness. For it is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read."

I wonder what Jefferson would think of the religious trends in America since his day.

Pew scholars tell us a significant shift toward pluralism is under way.

"In many ways," said Pew, "the changes in the religious makeup of Congress during the last half-century mirror broader changes in American society. Congress, like the nation as a whole, has become much less Protestant and more religiously diverse."

Pew says Protestant denominational families have lost clout in Congress over the past 50 years. Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Congregationalists hold significantly fewer seats now than they did back then. Baptists and Lutherans, on the other hand, have remained roughly the same.

Pew noted that some religious groupings have increased their numbers rather dramatically. Catholics have gone from 18.8 percent of the congressional membership in 1961 to 30.1 percent today, while the percentage of Jewish members of Congress has gone from 2.3 percent in 1961 to 8.4 percent today.

What Pew doesn't say is that denominational affiliation doesn't tell us very much. Some Catholics in Congress are staunch supporters of church-state separation, reproductive freedom and gay rights, while others are avid opponents. Baptists likewise run the gamut from hardline right-wingers to ardent progressives.

Thus, Pew's numbers are interesting reading. But in the last analysis, as Jefferson so wisely observed, the thing that matters is how these members of Congress conduct themselves. Do they vote to preserve religious liberty or curtail it?

If you haven't written to your senators and representative to express your support of church-state separation and individual freedom of conscience, do so today.