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Nov 23 2012

Congress Gets More Religiously Diverse

The growing diversity in religious and non-religious belief in American society is finally starting to have at least a small influence on the makeup of Congress. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has a report about the religious views of the newly elected Congress and the news is mostly good.

The newly elected, 113th Congress includes the first Buddhist to serve in the Senate, the first Hindu to serve in either chamber and the first member of Congress to describe her religion as “none,” continuing a gradual increase in religious diversity that mirrors trends in the country as a whole. While Congress remains majority Protestant, the institution is far less so today than it was 50 years ago, when nearly three-quarters of the members belonged to Protestant denominations…

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. About one-in-five U.S. adults describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – a group sometimes collectively called the “nones.” But only one member of the new Congress, Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), is religiously unaffiliated, according to information gathered by CQ Roll Call. Sinema is the first member of Congress to publicly describe her religion as “none,” though 10 other members of the 113th Congress (about 2%) do not specify a religious affiliation, up from six members (about 1%) of the previous Congress. This is about the same as the percentage of U.S. adults in Pew Research Center surveys who say that they don’t know, or refuse to specify, their faith (about 2%).

Unfortunately, Sinema is running like hell away from the atheist label:

But her spokesman, Justin Unga, said in a postelection statement to the Religion News Service that she does not identify herself as an atheist.

“Krysten believes the terms nontheist, atheist or nonbeliever are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character,” Mr. Unga said. “She does not identify as any of the above.”

First of all, the word “atheist” is not meant to describe your “life’s work or personal character.” It just means you don’t believe in God. But that isn’t what this is about. It’s about a politician trying to avoid a term that has strong negative connotations to much of the American public.

But still, this is all good news and a step, however small, in the right direction. Perhaps one day we’ll live in a country where the mere fact of not believing in God doesn’t cause people to think that you’re an evil person, but we aren’t anywhere near that yet. More diversity in Congress, though, is a positive development, and hopefully one that constitutes a trend.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Michael Heath

    But only one member of the new Congress, Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), is religiously unaffiliated, according to information gathered by CQ Roll Call. Sinema is the first member of Congress to publicly describe her religion as “none,” though 10 other members of the 113th Congress (about 2%) do not specify a religious affiliation, up from six members (about 1%) of the previous Congress.

    When this finding was first reported I was a little confused. That’s because I recall Rep. Pete Stark identifying as an atheist. I also assumed because he was an atheist, that he’d have no religious affiliation. His Wikipedia page reports that’s he’s both retiring from office and identified as a Unitarian Universalist.

    Since it’s only Democratic members of Congress who are increasingly reflecting religious diversity with the exception of the ‘nones’, it’d be interesting to see how the Republican party’s make-up is changing in terms of their theology. That’s a little more difficult to parse since some Christian denominations include both theologically and politically liberal and conservative members, e.g., Episcopalians, Methodists, and Catholics.

  2. 2
    slc1

    Re MH @ #1

    Many members of the UU Church are, in fact, atheists or agnostics.

  3. 3
    Reginald Selkirk

    That joke is that UUs are “atheists with children.”

  4. 4
    tomh

    @ #1
    His Wikipedia page reports that’s he’s both retiring from office

    A polite way of saying that he lost the election.

  5. 5
    Reginald Selkirk

    I can’t wait for the coins with “In Lakshmi We Trust” on them.

  6. 6
    whheydt

    Re: Michael Heath @#1.

    My youthful association with the Unitarians (this was before they merged with the Universalists) might help…

    Unitarians vary quite a bit. In Eastern Europe, they are a bog-standard Protestant religion. On the US East Coast, they are (or were) a very liberal Protestant religion. In the Western US, they mostly didn’t give a damn what you believed.

    In the 1950s, the Unitarians were a haven for inter-religious couples (say, a Jew and Baptist), where neither religious group would put up with the “other” member of the marriage. The Unitarians didn’t care and would welcome both.

    The end result is, Stark claiming to be a UU isn’t inconsistent with him being an atheist. It just puts a thin “Christian” varnish on the outside for those that care and don’t know much about actual UU practices.

    There is an old joke about these issues…

    Protestants pray to God.
    Catholics pray to Mary.
    Unitarians pray “to whom in may concern”.

  7. 7
    billdaniels

    Where are all the Swedenborgians?

  8. 8
    John Hinkle

    Someday, though not in my lifetime, the houses of Congress will resemble the people on the deck of the Enterprise. And by Enterprise, I mean the various generations of Enterprise, the various series, and movies.

    At that point, privileged white Christian male conservatives will be grey bearded men in rockers shaking their canes impotently at the free thinking kids running on their lawns.

  9. 9
    Modusoperandi

    Michael Heath “That’s because I recall Rep. Pete Stark identifying as an atheist.”
    He could only get away with that because his brother’s Iron Man.

  10. 10
    Midnight Rambler

    Tulsi Gabbard is my rep, and I’m just hoping she actually is a Hindu; more than Obama, we do have to just take her word for it. Her father is a member of a rabidly homophobic Hare Krishna-type cult called Science of Identity (he now says he’s Catholic), and was one of the main drivers behind keeping Hawaii from being the first state to recognize same-sex marriage. While she has worked on her father’s campaigns, she says she had a progressive conversion while serving in Iraq, but still relied on his contributors during her own campaigns. We’ll have to see if her votes line up with her words…

  11. 11
    cottonnero

    The joke I heard was that Unitarians believe in at most one god.

  12. 12
    dan4

    @10: “We’ll have to see if her votes line up with her words…”

    They probably will. From what I’ve heard, her district is fairly liberal.

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