The 116th Congress that was sworn in this week is slightly more religiously diverse than the previous Congress, but it continues to contrast with the U.S. population as a whole, according to a new analysis of lawmakers’ faith.
The new Congress includes the first two Muslim women to ever serve in the U.S. House, including Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and four more Jewish members than the previous session, including Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., according to the report by the Pew Research Center.
But 88 percent of this session’s lawmakers are Christian, compared with 71 percent of the population. And just one lawmaker reported being unaffiliated with any religion, compared with 23 percent of the population as a whole.
“Congress continues to grow more religiously diverse, while at the same time it’s happening more slowly than in the public overall,” said Besheer Mohamed, a senior researcher at Pew.
Catholics are the largest single Christian denomination among lawmakers, with 163 members, according to Pew’s “Faith on the Hill” report based on data from CQ Roll Call.
Baptists and Methodists came in second and third, with 72 and 42 members. Lutherans, Presbyterians and Episcopalians each had 26 members.
Minnesota’s 10-member congressional delegation reflects a mix of faiths. Three members reported being Catholic — Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum and Republican Reps. Tom Emmer and Pete Stauber. Three reported being Lutheran — Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn and Democratic Reps. Collin Peterson and Angie Craig.
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar also is Protestant, a Congregationalist. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., is among 18 lawmakers who did not provide any information.
The composition of Congress differs in several ways from the general population, the analysis found. Catholics are overrepresented. Catholics make up 30 percent of Congress but 21 percent in the nation.
The same is true for the share of Jewish lawmakers. With 34 members this session, they are 6 percent of Congress but 2 percent of the total population.
Meanwhile, the number of Muslims crept from two to three since the last session. There are just two Buddhists and three Hindu members, and the number of Mormons dropped from 13 to 10.
Of the 471 House and Senate members who called themselves Christian, a surprising number — 80 — did not specify a denomination.
Only one legislator, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., reported that she had no religious affiliation, meaning she didn’t belong to any organized religion.
“That’s striking,” said Mohamed. “That one [person] compares to nearly one in four in the general public.”
Congress members who declined to provide any information, checking the box “don’t know/refused,” jumped from 10 to 18 since the last session.
“We all see growing reticence among some members of Congress to specify their religious affiliation,” said Mohamed.
Not specifying a religion, or being unaffiliated, doesn’t mean a person is an atheist. But being associated with that could be a liability for a politician.
In a 2016 survey, Pew found that 51 percent of respondents said they’d be less likely to vote for a candidate who didn’t believe in God. Another 41 percent said it wouldn’t matter.
The 116th Congress continues a pattern of being overwhelmingly Christian. Pew reports that 95 percent of Congress members were Christian in the 1961-62 session, when it first began collecting the data, dropping slightly to 91 percent last session and 88 percent this year.
“There is a slow change toward diversity,” said Mohamed. “We’re not seeing fluctuation.”