Monday, February 18, 2013

How Much Does Religious Affiliation Matter in Congress?

The Circle of Protection has become a central theme of Bread for the World's advocacy efforts over the last couple of years.  Bread members and supporters of allied organizations are motivated by our faith to act on behalf of hungry and poor people in our country and around the world.  "As Christians, we believe the moral measure of the debate is how the most poor and vulnerable people fare. We look at every budget proposal from the bottom up—how it treats those Jesus called "the least of these" (Matthew 25:45), said a statement from a broad group of Christian leaders who signed the Circle of Protection declaration in April 2011.  They do not have powerful lobbies, but they have the most compelling claim on our consciences and common resources."

I will admit that not all people of faith are on the same page regarding our approach to end hunger, but there is at least some common recognition that our Judeo-Christian (and other) scriptures require that we take some sort of action to reduce hunger and poverty.

Note this quote from Religion Link. "While religious people across the political spectrum agree that Scripture clearly urges care and compassion for the poor, there are complex and sometimes fierce debates — particularly among Christians and Jews across the conservative-liberal divide — about how best to do that. Tensions remain over how best to address poverty — what actually works and what the responsibility of people of faith, or the government, is. Some debates focus on the moral responsibility of the haves toward the have-nots; others on the moral responsibility of those who are poor."

Which brings us to the question: Does religious affiliation have an impact on how you go about your business in Washington?  The other related question is: Is party affiliation or religious affiliation more important?  There could be members of the same denomination from different parties who vote in totally different ways.  Sometimes floor speeches reflect the values of the legislators, but voting records are also important.

This post does not attempt to answer those questions, but offers a glimpse into the religious affiliations of the House and the Senate during the 113th Congress.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life gives us an interesting perspective on the current Congress in a study entitled, Faith on the Hill: The Religious Composition of the 113th Congress, published on Jan. 2, 2013.

 "Of the 533 members of the new Congress, 299 are Protestant, which is about the same percentage (56%) as in the 112th Congress (57%) and higher than the share of Protestants in the U.S. adult population (48%). But the proportion of Protestants in Congress has been in gradual decline for decades, and the number in the 113th Congress is lower than the number in the previous Congress (307), even if the difference in percentage terms is slight."

"Looking at the partisan breakdown of the various religious groups, Lutherans are almost evenly divided between the parties (52% Democrats and 48% Republicans). The other sizable Protestant groups (Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians) – as well as Protestants as a whole – have more Republicans than Democrats. The same is true for Mormons; 12 of the 15 Mormon members of the new Congress are Republicans. 

Catholics are slightly tilted toward the Democrats (57%-43%). Jewish members are mostly Democratic (97%); in fact, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is the only Jewish Republican in Congress. The other non-Christian groups (Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Unitarians) are comprised exclusively of Democrats. All the members of Congress who did not specify a religion are also Democrats."   

The New Mexico Congressional Delegation
In case you're wondering about the New Mexico Congressional delegation, we have one Baptist (Rep. Steve Pearce),  two Roman Catholics (Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan), a Mormon (Sen Tom Udall) and a Lutheran (Sen Martin Heinrich).

There has also been some diversity among the members of Congress who represented our state since I moved to New Mexico in 1992. Three were Roman Catholics (Sen. Pete Domenici, Rep. Bill Richardson, and Rep. Joe Skeen), two United Methodists (Sen. Jeff Bingaman and Rep. Heather Wilson), one member of the Jewish faith (Rep. Steve Schiff), one Baptist (Rep. Harry Teague), and one non-denominational Christian (Rep. Bill Redmond).  Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich served in the House before their election to the Senate.

Here are a few more interesting notes from the Pew study:
  • The 85 members to be seated for the first time in 2013 are less Protestant than the 112 first-time members who entered in 2011. In the 112th Congress, about six-in-ten members of the congressional freshman class were Protestant (59%), but that figure dipped to less than 50% in the 113th Congress. The percentage of freshman members who are Baptist and Presbyterian also decreased (from 16% to 9% for Baptists and from 8% to 4% for Presbyterians).
  • Catholics comprise a higher percentage of first-time members (37%) than of incumbent members (30%). Likewise, unspecified Protestants make up a greater percentage of freshman members (19%) than of incumbents (9%).
  • In many ways, the changes in the religious makeup of Congress during the last half-century mirror broader changes in American society. Congress, like the nation as a whole, has become much less Protestant and more religiously diverse. The number of Protestants in Congress has dropped from three-quarters (75%) in 1961 to 56% today, which roughly tracks with broader religious demographic trends during this period. 
  • Due in part to electoral gains in recent years, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus now are represented in Congress in closer proportion to their numbers in the U.S. adult population. But some small religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, are not represented at all in Congress.
  • 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. 

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