New Congress Brings Along Religious Firsts

By Jonathan Tilove
Religion News Service
Saturday, January 6, 2007

The new Congress, for the first time, includes a Muslim, two Buddhists, more Jews than Episcopalians and the highest-ranking Mormon in congressional history.

Roman Catholics remain the largest single faith group in Congress, accounting for 29 percent of all members of the House and Senate, followed by Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Jews and Episcopalians.

While Catholics in Congress are almost 2-to-1 Democrats, the most lopsidedly Democratic groups are Jews and those not affiliated with a religion. Of the 43 Jewish members of Congress, there is only one Jewish Republican in the House and two in the Senate. The six religiously unaffiliated members of the House are all Democrats.

The most Republican groups are the small band of Christian Scientists in the House (all five are Republican) and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (12 Republicans and three Democrats) -- though the top-ranking Mormon is Nevada Sen. Harry M. Reid, the new Democratic majority leader.

Baptists generally divide along partisan lines defined by race. Most black Baptists are Democrats, while most white Baptists are Republicans. Notable exceptions include House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), president pro tem in the new Senate, both white Baptists.

Because 2006 was such a good year for Democrats, they have regained their commanding advantage among Catholics, which had slipped during an era of GOP dominance. In Pennsylvania alone, five new Democrats, all Catholics, were elected to Congress in November, including Robert P. Casey Jr., who defeated Sen. Rick Santorum, a far more conservative Catholic.

In the new Congress, two-thirds of all Catholic members will be Democrats. By contrast, after big Republican gains in 1994, 44 percent of Catholic members of Congress were Republican, according to Albert Menendez, a writer and researcher who has been counting the religious affiliation of members of Congress since 1972.

"It's a thankless task, but somebody's got to do it," said Menendez, 64, who lives in North Potomac and has published his counts and analysis first with Americans United for Separation of Church and State and more recently in Voice of Reason, the newsletter of Americans for Religious Liberty. He is also the author of several books, including "Religion at the Polls" (1977), "John F. Kennedy: Catholic and Humanist" (1979) and "Evangelicals at the Ballot Box" (1996).

Menendez bases his count on how lawmakers identify themselves. When he did his first tally after the 1972 election, Congress was still much in the sway of a few mainline Christian faiths. At the time, just three mainline Protestant denominations -- Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians -- accounted for 43 percent of all members of Congress, including 51 senators. Come January, those three will account for just a fifth of Congress, including 32 senators. Still, all three -- especially Episcopalians and Presbyterians -- continue to be better represented on Capitol Hill than among the general population.

Other historically important Christian denominations have suffered steep declines in Congress. Menendez said the Lyndon B. Johnson landslide of 1964 brought 14 Unitarians to Washington. In the new Congress, there are two -- Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) and Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). In the late 1960s, there were 29 members of the United Church of Christ in Congress, but in the new Congress, there will be only six, including Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who joined the church as an adult. (Obama's Kenyan father was from a Muslim background and his American mother's parents were non-practicing Baptist and Methodist.)

Through it all, Lutherans have maintained. Menendez said they were underrepresented relative to their population in 1972, with 16 members of Congress, and remain underrepresented today with 17. While their total numbers have held steady, their political allegiance has flipped from 2-to-1 Republican to 2-to-1 Democrat.

Evangelical Christians -- a category that cuts across denominational lines -- are even more underrepresented, according to Furman University political scientist James L. Guth, all the more so after this year's defeat of Republican incumbents such as Reps. John N. Hostettler of Indiana and Jim Ryun of Kansas.

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