New U.S. Congress will be more religiously diverse, but still won't completely reflect religious landscape

Published: Monday, Nov. 19 2012 3:25 p.m. MST

In the 2012 election voters seated a new Congress that is gradually moving toward reflecting the growing religious diversity of the nation as a whole, according to a new analysis of election results.

"In many ways, the changes in the religious makeup of Congress during the last half-century mirror broader changes in American society," stated the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "Congress, like the nation as a whole, has become much less Protestant and more religiously diverse."

The Forum's "Faith on the Hill: The Religious Composition of the 113th Congress" shows voters in Hawaii elected the first Buddhist to serve in the Senate and the first Hindu to serve in either chamber, while Arizona voters elected the first member of Congress to describe her religion as “none.”

Catholics appear to have added five seats, increasing their share to 30 percent of the 530 seats in the new Congress — the largest gain of all faiths represented in the legislative branch. Catholics also comprised the largest share (37 percent) of first-time members of Congress.

The biggest decline was among Jewish members of Congress, who have been elected to 32 seats, down seven from the 112th Congress.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will occupy 15 seats, the same as the previous Congress. Mormons make up 7 percent of the Senate and just 2 percent of the House.

Protestants appear likely to continue to occupy about the same proportion of seats (56 percent) as in the 112th Congress (57 percent), but Pew found first-time members of Congress are less Protestant than those first elected in 2010 — 48 percent compared with 59 percent.

"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," stated the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

In proportion to the nation's religious landscape, the analysis found Protestants, Catholics and Jews each make up a greater percentage of the members of Congress than of all U.S. adults, although some subgroups of the Protestant family are either a higher or lower percentage of Congress than of the general public.

Mormons (3 percent) are in closer proportion to their numbers (2 percent) in the general population, as are Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus. Some small religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, are not represented at all in Congress.

A recent Pew study found that one-in-five U.S. adults describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” — a group sometimes collectively called the “nones.” Rep.-elect Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., is the first member of Congress to publicly describe her religion as “none,” though 10 other members of the 113th Congress (about 2 percent) do not specify a religious affiliation, up from six members (about 1 percent) 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," the Pew Forum stated.

Religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero wrote in CNN's Belief Blog that the Pew analysis shows that the much touted-diversity ushered into Congress in the 2012 election "is still years away.

"Yes, the Senate will be 20 percent female, but women are more than 50 percent of the population. And the U.S. Congress will still be far more Christian (87 percent) than U.S. adults as a whole (70 percent).

"At least when it comes to religion, the U.S. Congress doesn't yet look like the voters who are sending them to Washington."

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