In recent years, Americans have grown increasingly skeptical of the role of religion in politics. According to the Pew Research Center, the share of Americans saying there is "too much" expression of faith and prayer by politicians crept up from 12 percent in 2001 to 38 percent in 2012, enough for a plurality. Most now say that churches should keep out of political matters, and a majority agree that "religious conservatives have too much control over the GOP."
Against this backdrop the Secular Coalition for America, a nonprofit group with a mission to "raise the profile of secular Americans" nationwide, released its rankings of how much — or little — legislators have supported the notion of church/state separation in the 113th Congress. Representatives were scored according to their votes and sponsorship of 14 bills related to church-state issues, including a measure in support of prayer in schools, a bill to amend the Constitution to prevent gay marriage, and a bill to eliminate funding for abstinence-only sex-ed. You can see the full list of bills at the Coalition's Web site.In total, 35 legislators received "A" grades — all Democrats. In fact, no Republican scored higher than a "D," and there were only two of those — Justin Amash of Michigan and Vance McAllister of Louisiana. The remaining Republicans were all given an "F." Louise Slaughter of New York and Rush Holt of New Jersey received 100s, the highest numeric scores, while Doug Malfa of California, Tim Walberg of Michigan and Walter Jones of North Carolina all tied for the lowest score, 5.
These scores are based on legislative votes, not personal beliefs. Hence, the only non-religious person in Congress, Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema, scored just an 85.
Geographically speaking, New England is a hotbed for support of church/state separation, as is much of Maryland and the California and Oregon coasts. Unsurprisingly, representatives from the South and certain heartland districts are the least likely to support church/state separation.
It's worth pointing out that the Secular Coalition is an advocacy organization, and that their scoring carries an explicit value judgment — support for church/state separation is good, while opposition to it is bad. But the scores are a double-edged sword. It's just as easy to imagine a Republican touting her low scores to prove her conservative bona-fides as it is to imagine a Democrat trumpeting his high score. In that sense, these scores are reflective of the religious divides within the country — going back to the Pew survey, Democrats and Independents are nearly twice as likely to ding politicians for too much religious talk (46 percent and 42 percent, respectively) than are Republicans (24 percent).
Overall the findings underscore one of the major demographic differences between the House and the public it represents. Only one member of the House is unaffiliated with any religion, while a full 20 percent of the general public is unaffiliated. In pursuing agendas that seek to bring religious influence to bear in the public policy sphere, representatives are in danger of alienating a large and growing bloc of voters. Chief among them are voters under 30, a full third of whom are not religiously affiliated at all.