Representatives & religion: Slowly but surely, Congress is becoming more diverse

It wasn’t that long ago that the religious make-up of the U.S. Congress consisted of just three groups: Protestants, Catholics and a small number of Jews.

Every now and then, a member would list his or her religion as “other,” or would decline to answer the question. Generally speaking, though, Congress was a bastion of the nation’s majority faiths.

That still tends to be the case, but as America’s religious composition changes, Congress is slowly becoming more diverse as well. The House of Representatives now has two Muslim members. There are also two Buddhists in the House and one in the Senate. In addition, the first Hindu has been elected to Congress — Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has some interesting data about the religious composition of the incoming 113th Congress in a new report. Pew notes that Protestants continue to dominate that body; there will be 299 Protestants in the 113th Congress. The number of Catholics has increased, and members of that faith will account for 161 members of the next Congress.

The number of Jews is down. There will be 32 Jews in the new Congress. Mormons are holding their own at 15 seats.

As I looked over the totals, one thing struck me: More and more Americans are identifying their religion as “none,” but this trend has yet to be reflected in Congress. Ten members of the incoming Congress listed their religion as “don’t know” or refused the question, but only one — Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, claims the label of “none.” (Congress’ lone atheist, U.S. Rep. Pete Stark of California, lost his bid for reelection on Election Day.)

Pew took pains to point this out. In the report, Pew researchers wrote, “Perhaps the greatest disparity, however, is between the percentage of U.S. adults and the percentage of members of Congress who do not identify with any particular religion.”

The report reminds us that the United States remains unique among Western nations when it comes to the intersection of faith and politics. Religion continues to affect the political system in ways that you don’t see in other countries. For example, the prime minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, has been public about her atheism, and political leaders in much of Europe rarely invoke religion in their public pronouncements.

But the United States isn’t like those other countries. Religion continues to influence campaigns here, and most polls show that many voters flatly say they would not support an atheistic candidate, even if they liked his or her views.

With that type of bigotry afoot, it’s no wonder so many U.S. politicians rush to embrace some type of religious label.

One more thought on this: Gabbard has already announced her intention to take the oath of office on a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. I’m sure some Religious Right groups will carp about this. You might recall that several of them threw a fit when U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Muslim, took his oath on a Quran. In 2007, there was an ugly incident in the U.S. Senate when a Hindu clergyman was given the opportunity to deliver a guest invocation, and protesters disrupted it.

This type of intolerance is a dying gasp from the “Christian nation” crowd, and Gabbard should feel free to ignore them. Common decency is on her side, and so is the law. Nothing in the Constitution or the laws of this country mandates that a holder of public office to take the oath of office on a Bible – or any other book, for that matter. The use of Bibles is a tradition, but it’s in no way required.  

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