Religiously speaking, the incoming 118th Congress looks like America – that is, the America of decades past, rather than today.
Congress is far more Christian, and religious overall, than today’s general population.
Even though nearly 3 in 10 Americans claim no religious affiliation – a rate that has steadily risen in recent years – only two of the 534 incoming members of Congress publicly identify as such.
Those are among the conclusions of an analysis by Pew Research Center of the 118th Congress, which was expected to start this week pending a House leadership vote.
The Congress “remains largely untouched by two trends that have long marked religious life in the United States: a decades-long decline in the share of Americans who identify as Christian, and a corresponding increase in the percentage who say they have no religious affiliation,” said the Pew report, released last Tuesday. It was based on a CQ Roll Call survey of members of Congress.
Nearly 88% of members of Congress identify as Christian, compared with only 63% of U.S. adults overall. That includes 57% of congresspersons who identify as Protestant and 28% as Catholic, both higher than national rates. Also, 6% of members of Congress identify as Jewish, compared with 2% of the overall population.
While 29% Americans claim no religious affiliation, they’d have to squint to see themselves reflected in Congress. The only overtly non-religious members are U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., who identifies as humanist, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, independent of Arizona, who says she’s religiously unaffiliated.
Pew listed 20 other members of Congress as having unknown religious affiliations, either because they declined to answer CQ Roll Call’s query or because the answers are otherwise muddled (such as in the case of New York Republican George Santos, along with much else in his background).
Historically, lacking a religious identity was seen as a political liability.
Only 60% of Americans told a Gallup survey in 2019 that they’d be willing to vote for an atheist – fewer than would vote for gays or lesbians or various religious or ethnic groups.
But Huffman said he experienced no political blowback.
“If anything, there’s a political upside,” he said. “People appreciate the fact that I’m just being honest.”
He said many colleagues in Congress find religion to be politically useful, “particularly across the aisle, how so many of them exploit and weaponize religion but seem to be totally divorced from any authentic connection to the religion they’re weaponizing.”
The ranks of Christians in Congress has dipped only slightly over the decades, though it’s a different story with the general population. Since 2007, Christians have gone from 78% to 63% of the population, while the non-affiliated rose from 16% to 29%, according to Pew. The trend line is even more dramatic when looking back to 1990, when nearly 9 in 10 Americans identified as Christian, while less than 1 in 10 identified as non-religious, according to researchers at Trinity College in Connecticut.
In some ways, the two political parties conform to perception.
The Republican congressional delegation is a staggering 99% Christian, with the rest Jewish or unknown. Republicans – who have long embraced Christian expressions in their political functions and where an aggressive form of Christian nationalism has become more mainstream – include 69% Protestants, 25% Catholics and 5% other Christians (such as Mormon and Orthodox).
Democrats have more religious diversity, at about 76% Christian (including 44% Protestant, 31% Catholic and 1.5% Orthodox) and 12% Jewish. They have about 1% each of Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Unitarian Universalist representation.
But Democrats’ paucity of openly non-affiliated members contrasts starkly with a constituency to which it owes much.
Religiously unaffiliated voters opted overwhelmingly for Democrats candidates in the 2022 midterms. They voted for Democrats over Republicans by more than a 2 to 1 margin in House races, according to AP VoteCast, an expansive survey of more than 94,000 voters nationwide. And in some bellwether races, the unaffiliated went as high as 4 to 1 for Democrats.
“The fact that the (Democratic) leadership doesn’t reflect an open, secular identity is paradoxical, but I think it’s the nature of realpolitik,” said Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif.
He said Democrats know that non-religious voters align with them on the issues, but party leaders also don’t want to alienate other, more religious parts of the party’s base, particularly Black Protestants.
Party leaders “speak to the politics of secular people but don’t want to take on the identity,” he said.
Zuckerman added that conservative Christians face the “branding problem” similar to what atheists once faced. Many voters, he said, have reacted against Christian nationalism, and young voters in particular are alienated by conservative Christian stances against LGBTQ+ people, while many voters of all ages have reacted against Christian nationalism.
He cited a prominent incident in 2020 when authorities forcibly cleared Black Lives Matter protesters in Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., after which President Donald Trump walked to a nearby church and held up a Bible.
“When Trump held up that Bible in front of that church in D.C., he did more damage to the Christian brand than Hitchens and Dawkins and Harris combined,” Zuckerman said, referring to popular atheist authors.
In 2018, Huffman helped found the Congressional Freethought Caucus. It had a roster of about 15 members in the previous Congress.
“It’s people of different religious perspectives, but what brings us together is a common belief that there should be a bright line of separation between church and state and that we should make public policy based on facts and reason and science, and not religion,” he said.
He predicted that in time, more members of Congress would identify with secular values.
“It’s going to be a trailing reflection of this change that has been happening for a couple of decades now,” he said. ”It takes a while for politicians to figure out that it’s OK to do things like this.”
The Pew report analyzed one short of Congress’ capacity of 535 because one member, Rep. A. Donald McEachin, D-Va., died in November after being reelected.