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The Religious Makeup of the 118th Congress (now, finally, with a "Humanist")
The new Congress is as religiously diverse as we've ever seen. That's not saying much.
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With the new members of Congress officially seated today, we can once again look at the religious makeup of our government and see how representative it is of America as a whole.
The Pew Research Center, which issues a report on the religious makeup of Congress every two years, just released its latest version this morning, taking data from a CQ Roll Call questionnaire.
Here's what we now know about the religious affiliations of the 118th Congress: While America has become markedly less religious over time, Congress is just as religious as ever.
It's overwhelmingly Christian with a smattering of Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, and followers of other faiths.
But here's some exciting news for people who get excited by this stuff (I say to myself in the mirror): There's finally a Humanist on the list! Rep. Jared Huffman, who first came out as a non-theistic politician in 2017 then made it "official" (through the CQ Roll Call data) in 2019, is finally listed here for the first time as a “Humanist.” (Two years ago, he was placed in the nebulous ”Other” category.)
There’s also one member listed as "Unaffiliated": Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ). More on her in a bit. Because there’s always more on her.
As you can see, the demographics of Congress are hardly representative of the population at large. Christians are now 63% of the country, but a staggering 88% of the House and Senate. Among Republicans, that number jumps to 99% (the exceptions being two members who are Jewish and one who’s “Jew-ish”).
On the other end of the spectrum, people without any organized religion represent 29% of the population, but only 0.2% of Congress. (0.4% if you include Huffman.) Atheists represent about 4% of the country, according to Pew, so the openly non-theistic crowd is also under-represented in Congress.
Before you give Sinema credit for being “Unaffiliated,” though, remember that when asked if she was an atheist when she was first elected to Congress in 2012, her spokesperson dismissed the label by saying, "Kyrsten believes the terms non-theist, atheist or nonbeliever are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character." Creating even more frustration, one month ago—arguably to blunt a possible progressive challenger to her re-election bid in two years—she switched her party label to “Independent” while retaining all the benefits of caucusing with Democrats. There’s nothing Sinema loves more than pretending to be rebellious without doing the work to earn it… other than maybe selling shoes on Facebook.
You might ask: What about the Congressional Freethought Caucus? Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) is, with Rep. Huffman, one of the co-founders of the CFC, the group that advocates for a secular government and opposes discrimination against atheists. But whatever he believes in private, he uses the label "Jewish." It may be a secular form of Judaism, but on paper, there's no distinction. (His approach echoes that of former Rep. Barney Frank. After Frank left office, he said that while he didn't believe in God, he also didn't like the word "atheist" as a descriptor for himself and never used it, in part, out of fear that the Jewish community would see him as antisemitic. Raskin said in 2016 that he was "one hundred percent Jewish," "emphatically Jewish," and that "I’ve never called myself an atheist." Ironically, none of that means he's not an atheist.)
So, to summarize, the new Congress has one Humanist, one self-described "Unaffiliated" senator who thinks atheism is beneath her, at least one non-religious member of Congress who uses a religious label, and a whole bunch of legislators who (I'm sure) are probably in the closet about their non-religiosity.
Republicans, of course, barely enter into this conversation.
That's not to say nothing has changed. Since two years ago, there are fewer Christians (-2)—specifically fewer Methodists (-4) and Episcopalians (-4) and Catholics (-10) and a whole lot more "Unspecified" run-of-the-mill Christians (+11). There is also one Messianic Jew (Republican Anna Paulina Luna), three Muslims, two Buddhists, and two Hindus.
There are also 20 members of Congress who chose not to answer the religion question—a slight increase from two years ago.
Those 20? (An asterisk denotes a newly elected member.)
Rep. Brittany Pettersen (D-CO)*
Rep. Nikki Budzinski (D-IL)*
Rep. Sean Casten (D-IL)
Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL)
Rep. Sharice Davids (D-KS)
Rep. Jared Golden (D-ME)
Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-NM)*
Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY)
Rep. George Santos (R-NY)*
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR)
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR)
Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA)
Rep. Seth Magaziner (D-RI)*
Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-VA)
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA)
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI)
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO)
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL)
Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA)*
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI)
Santos, a Republican who lied about practically everything to get elected and now faces a host of investigations, may be the strangest addition to that list. I guess, much like every other detail of his life, he couldn’t settle on which religion he wanted to be. We know this: He’s not Jewish. And “Jew-ish” wasn’t an option on the list.
Absent from two years ago are Rep. Kai Kahele (D-HI), who ran for governor of Hawaii and lost; Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), who failed in his re-election bid; Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-NY), who is now the Lt. Gov. of New York; and Rep. Chris Jacobs (R-NY), who did not run for re-election.
Another point of interest: The Congressional Freethought Caucus is now at 15 members with the retirement of Rep. Jerry McNerney, loss of Rep. Carolyn Maloney, and additions of Rep. Julie Brownley (D-CA) and Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-CA). Of those 15, only Casten, Pocan, and Jayapal are on the list above (in addition to Huffman). The other members include three Jews, two Catholics, two Episcopalians, a Muslim, a Lutheran, and a Buddhist (Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia). Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) is also Unaffiliated. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, since they’re committed to defending church/state separation and fighting anti-atheist discrimination.
To respond to the inevitable criticism, I agree that this is ultimately a superficial way of viewing the legislators. Everything I'm writing here is about symbolism. There is a lot of importance in the idea of having religious diversity in public office, especially with openly non-religious politicians. I believe that would go a long way in decreasing the anti-atheist stigma that exists in our society because government is one of the few areas where an open atheist would be both in a position of prominence and in a job where helping others (as opposed to just advocating for non-belief) is the job description.
At the same time, what really matters is how those legislators would vote on issues that matter to most of us. A Republican atheist who voted against women's rights, LGBTQ rights, and church/state separation would be fighting against the wishes of most people who identify as non-religious. It wouldn't be something to celebrate. And there are so many religious Democrats who do a wonderful job fighting for progressive causes. As long as they keep doing that, I don't really care how they self-identify.
But still, it would be nice to have more members of Congress willing to admit they don't buy into faith-based nonsense.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)