The religious landscape of the United States is changing. Growing numbers of people are drifting away from organized religion, and the percentage of Americans who say they’re Christian now hovers at around 63%. (In the 1950s, more than 95% identified as Christian.)
But as the Pew Research Center noted recently, the U.S. Congress is not reflecting the trends of the nation at large. Pew analyzed data by CQ Roll Call and found that 88% of the members of the 118th Congress are Christian, and very few say their religion is “none,” a stance now held by nearly 30% of Americans.
Pew found that Protestants make up nearly 57% of the new Congress but only 40% of the population at large. There’s less of a gap for Catholics: They are about 28% of the Congress and 21% of the national population.
Nonbelievers are scarce in Congress
Among non-Christian faiths, Jews are the largest bloc in Congress, with 33 members accounting for about 6% of that body. But other groups have little representation in Congress. There are three Muslims, two Buddhists and two Hindus. One member, U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), identifies as openly non-religious – he’s a Humanist, and U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) is the sole member who identifies as “unaffiliated.” (Twenty members declined to state a religious belief.)
The Constitution promises there is no religious test required to hold public office – elected and other public officials cannot be denied office based on their religious beliefs. So, does it matter that the lack of religious plurality in Congress is so out of synch with the rest of the country? It sure might. The tendency to legislate according to religion is common among Christian Nationalists, and the default faith they’d like us all to live by is their own – conservative Christianity. If we had a Congress that better reflected America’s diversity, we might see more pushback on those efforts.
Also consider Congress’ rituals. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have taxpayer-funded chaplains who open sessions with prayers. These chaplains are always Christian, although non-Christian clergy are sometimes invited to give guest invocations. This type of Christian dominance is increasingly anachronistic in the America of 2023. (Of course, the best way to solve that problem would be to abolish the chaplaincy – as AU President and CEO Rachel Laser previously pointed out in The Washington Post.)
Madison’s ‘multiplicity of sects’
Some lawmakers at the federal, state and local levels cling to the idea of America as a “Christian nation,” even though our history and our current demographics debunk the idea. They fail to grasp a key idea articulated by James Madison, who famously celebrated the “multiplicity of sects, which pervades America, and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society.”
In other words, it’s a good thing to have lots of religious and non-religious beliefs around because no one group can get too powerful and bend the government to its will. Congress too often resists this idea. If that body looked more like America, maybe it would embrace it instead.