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Sep 25 2013

Religious composition of Congress

There was an interesting table giving the percentages of religious affiliations of members of Congress and comparing them with the population at large. It turns out that it is slowly becoming more diverse over time.

The new, 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.

It turns out that Congress has about the same or larger percentage as the general population for every category except one. The odd one out is, of course, those who are unaffiliated with any religion. The general population has about 20%, while Congress has only 0.2%. Whether this is a true number or whether members of Congress feel it is politically safer to affiliate with some religion, is not known. If it is the latter as I suspect, I wondered which category they checked off. My bets are on the Protestant categories of unspecified/other, Anglican, and Presbyterian.

For example, last month, nearly a year after retiring from Congress, Barney Frank came out as an atheist, saying that he now felt ‘liberated’ enough to say so. Note that he had come out as gay a long time ago in 1987 while still in Congress and had been easily re-elected, showing how being a nonbeliever is more toxic in American politics than being gay. I hope that more retired politicians declare their true beliefs, making it easier for serving members to do so.

In related news, atheists and humanists have joined to form a new Political Action Committee called the Freethought Equality Fund which says:

The FEF PAC will provide nontheist Americans the opportunity to make their voices heard in the political process by supporting candidates who identify as humanist, atheist, agnostic, and who share our goals of protecting the separation of church and state and defending the civil liberties of secular Americans.

We know how much money talks in American politics. I don’t know if this PAC will have enough clout to persuade people to be less shy of saying they are not really that religious. It would be wonderful if they could nudge the 0.2% up to double digits (both in front of the decimal point, of course).

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