SALT LAKE CITY — Although America's two new Muslim congresswomen have dominated headlines since the midterms, the newest members of Congress do little to change the legislative body's religious makeup, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis.
Congress may be more religiously diverse than it's ever been, but it's still more Christian than the American public. Eighty-eight percent of the 116th Congress identify as Christian, compared to 71 percent of U.S. adults, Pew reported.
In general, members of Congress are more likely to be religious than other Americans. Only one lawmaker, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., identifies as religiously unaffiliated.
"By far the largest difference between the U.S. public and Congress is in the share (23 v. 0.2 percent) who are unaffiliated with a religious group," Pew reported.
Despite its mostly stable religious composition, the new Congress creates new faith-related storylines. For example, the election of America's first two Muslim congresswomen has launched conversations about religious headwear and exacerbated interfaith tensions.
In December, a conservative pastor complained about the election of Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., arguing that America is a "Judeo-Christian country." Both women have said they won't back down from being who they are and were sworn in on Qurans.
"My swearing in on the (Quran) is about me showing that American people are made up of diverse backgrounds and we all have love of justice and freedom," Tlaib said to the Detroit Free Press. "My faith has centered me."
Here are three religion-related debates embedded in the new data on Congress' religious composition.
1. Why do some voters reject religious diversity?
Compared to last year, Congress now has "four more Jewish members, one additional Muslim and one more Unitarian Universalist," Pew reported. There are still three Hindu members and one fewer Buddhist.
The Episcopalian and Presbyterian delegations lost the most members. There are nine fewer people in each, as well as five fewer Catholics and three fewer members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Pew reported.
Altogether, the share of Christians dropped by three percentage points from 2018 to 2019. As the conservative pastor's comments illustrate, that small shift was enough to unsettle some Christian voters.
Around 40 percent of Americans believe the United States is a "Christian nation," according to Public Religion Research Institute, and that complicates efforts to encourage or celebrate religious diversity.
"There's a sense (among conservative Christians) that if an elected official does not know Christ … then they couldn't possible be able to lead a society that appreciates Christian values and protects conservative Christian expression," said Kevin Singer, co-director of Neighborly Faith, to the Deseret News last month.
It's natural for voters to feel drawn to political leaders who share their beliefs, the Deseret News reported. The Constitution bans religious tests for office, but that doesn't stop people from casting their ballots only for co-religionists.
"People vote for people who sort of think, act and look like themselves," said Daniel Dreisbach, a constitutional law and history scholar at American University, in the article.
In today's political environment, religious diversity increasingly seems like a partisan cause. Only two of the 253 GOP members of Congress are non-Christian, Pew reported.
2. Is it becoming easier for members of Congress to be nonreligious?
In addition to gaining Jewish and Muslim members, Congress now has more leaders who decline to specify their personal faith.
"There has been an increase of eight members in the 'don't know/refused' category" of the religious affiliation survey, Pew reported. In all, 18 members of Congress, all Democrats, are in this group.
Leaders who won't share their religious affiliation could have multiple reasons for doing so, researchers noted. Pew doesn't claim that all 18 actually are religious "nones," even if that would be a logical reason for refusing to answer.
Americans are still skeptical of nonreligious candidates, according to Public Religion Research Institute. Only 27 percent of U.S. adults believe electing more nonreligious people would make things in the country better.
Secular organizations like American Atheists and the Secular Coalition for America have banded together to try to create a more positive narrative around nonreligious candidates and voters, as the Deseret News reported last year. The growing number of Congressional leaders who don't openly claim a religious affiliation could benefit this effort.
"We want to normalize atheism," said Nick Fish, the president of American Atheists, to the Deseret News.
If they succeed, secular groups may change the way Congress responds to national crises and how candidates speak about religion on the campaign trail, the article noted.
"You (already) see politicians being able to say 'Stop with your thoughts and prayers and focus on policies.' You wouldn't have been able to say that 15 to 20 years ago," said Michael Wear, who directed faith outreach for Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, to the Deseret News last year.
3. Will religious differences between parties complicate bipartisanship?
Religious diversity is much less common among Republican members of Congress than Democratic ones, as Pew noted. Ninety-nine percent of Republican members of Congress identify as Christian, compared to 78.3 percent of Democrats.
Both groups are still more Christian than Americans in general, but their religious differences complicate efforts to work together. The Democratic Party is often seen as less friendly to people of faith, especially in debates over the rights of LGBT Americans.
At the state level, "bills that protect the rights of religious objectors to same-sex marriage or faith-based student organizations receive very little Democratic support, while bills proposing new protections for the LGBT community fail to gain Republican backers," the Deseret News reported last year.
In 2019, Congress will likely debate a bill aimed at balancing protections for conservative religious and LGBT Americans. If they want to pass the measure, members of Congress will have to focus on religious and political values they share, instead of the ones that divide them, Wear explained in a December Twitter thread.44 comments on this story
To a lesser extent, religious differences also affect debates on immigration policy, which are a top priority this month. Many of President Donald Trump's conservative Christian supporters back his calls for a wall along the border of Mexico and a crackdown on illegal immigration, as The Washington Post reported this week.
"For white evangelicals who see the sun setting on white Christian dominance in the country, the wall is a powerful metaphor," said Robert Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, in the article, noting that these Christians see ethnic diversity, like religious diversity, as a threat to American traditions and culture.