1 of 2

SALT LAKE CITY — Despite heavy midterm election shifts in favor of the Republican Party, the religious backgrounds of members of the new 112th Congress remain predominantly unchanged.

According to the study conducted by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, the religious affiliation of Congress is predominantly Protestant and about a third Catholic — similar to the general U.S. public.

"You're not going to see huge swings in religious diversity because America has a winner-takes-all system, even when there are significant partisan swings," said Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

Of the 535 members in the new Congress, 304 are Protestants, with Baptists and Methodists as the largest denominations within that family, also echoing a national trend.

However, a few of the country's religious groups — including Catholics, Jews, Mormons and a few Protestant denominations such as Anglicans/Episcopalians and Presbyterians — have greater representation in Congress than in the general American population.

For example, Jews' 45 representatives represent only 1.4 percent of adult Americans but claim 8.4 percent of seats in Congress. Similarly, Catholic congressional representation is 29.2 percent despite a 23.9 percent presence in the U.S.? Mormons hold 2.8 percent of the new Congress compared to 1.7 percent of the general populace.

According to the study, some small religious groups, such as Hindus and Jehovah's Witnesses, are not represented the 112th Congress at all. Both groups have less than one percent of representation in the nation.

The single greatest discrepancy found in the religious affiliation of Congress comes in the form of the percentage of those "unaffiliated" members who claim atheism, agnosticism or "nothing in particular."

Only six members of Congress do not specify a religious affiliation of some kind, and not one says they are unaffiliated. Inversely, 16 percent of American adults are unaffiliated — roughly one-sixth of the nation.

The study may suggest politicians with some sort of religious affiliation are better able to appeal to the public and be elected — not to mention be compelled to withhold potential religious doubts.

"Polls consistently show that belief in God is an important part of their [Americans'] lives," Jowers said. "The majority of our citizens have a belief in God and think it's important someone with a belief in God represents them in office. In a more representational government, unaffiliated politicians might get some votes, but the country is not quite ready to give them the reigns yet."

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Forum and Pew Research Center for the People & the Press this past summer, 61 percent of Americans say it is important for members of Congress to have strong religious beliefs. The number is even higher among Protestants.

Surprisingly, even 15 percent of reported atheists and agnostics express an importance for Congress members to have strong religious beliefs.

"The trends show that younger people are moving toward being unaffiliated," Jowers said. "The question is: When will there be a tipping point where that becomes acceptable for the people?"

In only a few decades, the religious backgrounds of members of Congress have changed and represented to shift taking place in a broader sense among the American public.

Jowers said the country is becoming more diverse, and it is not hard to see that difference as a microcosm within Utah — a natural byproduct of the broad being applied to the specific. With an influx in the Hispanic population, he said he expects to see interesting national changes, including a lessened Protestant representation on the Hill.

Since 1961, the number of Protestants in Congress has dropped from 74 percent — nearly three-quarters — to 57 percent today.

"Diversity in our representatives is critical," Jowers said. "These individuals are making decisions on how we're able to live, work and raise our families. It is critical that our representatives have a perspective on what is important to each of us."

The study's findings are based on a comparison of the religious backgrounds of the newly formed 112th Congress with general data on the American population gathered from the 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey — conducted by the Pew Forum among more than 35,000 U.S. adults — as well as information from the CQ Roll Call.

e-mail: clarson@desnews.com