Catholics see big gains in Congress: What does it mean?

Most postmortems of the 2012 elections have focused on its implications for the future of the Republican Party, the rise of the Latino vote or the continued polarization of the country by party and region. But here’s a takeaway you probably haven’t encountered: Catholics are coming on strong.

This is from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: “Catholics have seen the biggest gains among the 533 members [of Congress] who are scheduled to be sworn in on Jan. 3. Catholics picked up seven seats, for a total of 163, raising their share to just over 30%. Protestants and Jews experienced the biggest declines in numerical terms. Jews now hold 33 seats (6%), six fewer than in the 112th Congress, where Jews held 39 seats (7%). Protestants lost eight seats, though they continue to occupy about the same proportion of seats (56%) as in the 112th Congress (57%).”

If this were Northern Ireland, not America, the phrase “Catholics have seen the biggest gains” would have some political content. But, as we all know, Catholics these days encompass all sorts of partisan and ideological identifications. Paul Ryan is a Catholic; so is Joe Biden. The “Catholic vote” is considered important by political scientists these days because it is so representative of the overall vote.

Indeed, the religious affiliations of politicians in general are less of a proxy for political views than they used to be (though Mormons in Congress still lean to the right and Jews to the left). Nor, in an era in which we’re all interested in diversity and interest-group representation, do many voters keep scorecards about whether people in public life “look like” the general public in their worship habits.

Do Protestants and Catholics (not to mention Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims) in California feel disenfranchised because the state has two Jewish senators? I don’t think so, any more than Jews and Protestants in my home state of Pennsylvania consider themselves marginalized because they are represented by two Irish Catholic senators (and a Catholic governor, to boot).  Washington journalists like me are fascinated by the fact that there are no Protestants on the Supreme Court (which has six Catholic members and three Jews), but no one else seems to care.

There may be mildly more interest in the fact that Congress now includes members of non-Judeo-Christian faiths. Pew notes that the 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.’” There are also two Muslims in Congress. In general, though, you don’t hear much discussion even in political-junkie circles about whether some religions are over- or under-represented.

This may reflect a welcome religious tolerance on the part of voters. An alternative explanation is that religious identification is less important in politics because religion itself is less important. We’ll know for sure when religious affiliation disappears from politicians’ official biographies.


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