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World & Nation

The new Congress is the most diverse ever — but not when it comes to religion

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Democratic Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar celebrates her primary victory in August. She is one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, both joining this year.
(Mark Vancleave / Associated Press)

When the new Congress convened last week, it included several historic firsts with its youngest elected member, its first two Muslim women and its first two Native American women among them. Women now make up about a quarter of Congress, while the Senate and House of Representatives together include more African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans than ever before.

But even as Congress takes steps toward reflecting the gender and racial makeup of the country, it lags significantly behind when it comes to religion, according to an analysis released last week.

Using self-reported information about the religious affiliations of the 534 members of Congress, the Pew Research Center found that about 88% call themselves Christians.

The number is a slight dip from the 115th Congress, in which 91% of members identified as Christians. The race in North Carolina’s 9th District has not been certified amid allegations of electoral fraud, which is why Pew’s count is one short of all 535 seats in Congress.

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“While the number of self-identified Christians in Congress has ticked down, Christians as a whole — and especially Protestants and Catholics — are still overrepresented in proportion to their share in the general public,” Pew’s report said. “Indeed, the religious makeup of the new, 116th Congress is very different from that of the United States population.”

Overall, the U.S. population is about 70% Christian. People who are atheist, agnostic or identify with no religion make up close to 23% of the population, while Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and other religions together constitute about 6% of the U.S., according to Pew.

The nonpartisan research group’s report used data from Roll Call, which asked members of Congress which religious group, if any, they identified with as part of a larger questionnaire. Pew did not attempt to measure how religious members of Congress are or how religion influences their politics.

Here’s how the religious makeup of Congress breaks down:

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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is Catholic, stands among fellow freshmen members of Congress.
(Melina Mara / Washington Post)

Christians

Data show that Congress has become slightly less Christian over the years. The new Congress has 14 fewer Christians than the previous one, and 20 fewer than the Congress that was in session in 2015 and 2016.

Still, Christians dominate Congress. About 55% are Protestants, 30% are Catholics and 15% align themselves with “unspecified or other” Christian movements. The latter group includes those who said they were Christian, evangelical Christian, evangelical Protestant or Protestant but did not indicate a denomination.

By themselves, Protestants make up a majority in both the House and Senate. Among them, Pew counted 72 Baptists and 42 Methodists. Among Presbyterians, Lutherans and Anglicans/Episcopalians, there were 26 members from each group. Ten members said they were Mormons and five identified as Orthodox Christian.

And while Christians are the majority in the Republican and Democratic memberships of Congress, they overwhelmingly make up the Republican side. Out of 253 Republicans, only two are not Christians. Reps. Lee Zeldin of New York and David Kustoff of Tennessee are Jewish.

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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema was the only person in Congress whom Pew’s study counted as having no religious affiliation.
(Matt York / Associated Press)

Not Christians

The increase in non-Christian members of Congress is nearly completely among Democrats and independents.

Jewish members make up the second-largest religious group at 6%. There are 34 Jewish members, an increase of four. The number is far from its highest; in 1993 there were 51 Jews in Congress.

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Muslims and Hindus were the next biggest groups of non-Christians, with three members from each faith.

Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan are the first Muslim women in Congress. They join Democratic Rep. Andre Carson of Indiana. The total number of Muslims is an increase of one over the previous Congress, when former Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota served.

Among Hindus, all three are returning Democrats. They are Reps. Ro Khanna of California, Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.

There are two Buddhists, one less than before. That’s because former Democratic Rep. Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii did not seek reelection and instead ran unsuccessfully for governor. The Buddhists currently serving are Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia and Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, both Democrats.

Among Unitarian Universalists, there is one more in the new Congress for a total of two. Although the faith has roots in Christianity and some Unitarian Universalists identify as Christians, Pew does not categorize the tradition under Christianity. Its members in Congress, both California Democrats, are Reps. Ami Bera and Judy Chu. In a previous Roll Call survey, Chu did not answer the religion question.

There is only one person in Congress that Pew counted as having no religious affiliation. That is Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who previously served three terms in the House.

Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman of California said in 2017 that he was a humanist and unsure whether God exists, but Pew did not count him as a religiously unaffiliated member because Roll Call listed his religion as “unspecified.” A spokeswoman for Huffman said he is a “nonreligious humanist.”

In addition, 17 other members of Congress did not identify their faith in the questionnaire.

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