Americans from a wide range of faith traditions—Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and at least one atheist among them—joined together last month to form the 111th United States Congress. No other Congress in American history rivals the diversity of the last two congressional bodies.
Members of Congress have been religiously devout leaders since the country’s beginning. Yet although George Washington and James Madison celebrated religious diversity as an American birthright and a cornerstone of American democracy, this ideal was until recently a distant goal.
Today’s Congress reflects the diversity of the American people and the rich tradition of interfaith dialogue espoused by our founding fathers. And it could not come at a better time. The 111th Congress will have to act as a moral leader as it addresses the plummeting economy, a broken health care system, a climate in crisis, sectarian violence ripping apart nations around the world, and the threat of global terrorism. It is more important than ever for our leadership to represent the patchwork of American culture and values when facing these momentous challenges.
Growth in religious diversity
Religious diversity has increased drastically since the first Congress in 1789, when the nation was overwhelmingly Protestant. At that time, all Congressmen—save the 25 with unknown affiliations—were Christian, the vast majority of whom were Protestant. But as religious diversity among the American population has increased, so too has diversity in Congress.
Snippets of religious diversity were introduced early on in Congress’ history. One Catholic, Sen. Charles Carroll from Maryland, elected to the first Congress. And Rep. Lewis Charles Levin became the first Jewish member of Congress in 1845. Just six years later, Rep. John Milton Bernhisel—the first representative of the Utah Territory—became the first Mormon in Congress. But despite these important firsts, membership in Congress remained heavily weighted toward mainline Protestants for the next century.
Elections in the late 1950s saw some significant changes. Dalip Singh Saund, an Indian-born Sikh from California, was elected to the House in 1956, for example. After the following mid-term election in 1958, an unprecedented 19 percent of Congress members were Catholic. And in 1961, religious diversity grew even more: Congress had 394 Protestant members, but it also included 100 Catholics, 12 Jews, and 7 Mormons. These increases in representation mirrored the healthy assimilation of Catholics and Jews into American society.
There has since been a steady rise in the representation of minority or underrepresented religious groups. Today, the number of Protestants has dropped by 102 to 54.7 percent of Congress and is now closely in line with the percentage of American Protestants (51.3 percent), leaving room for 161 Catholics (30.1 percent of Congress compared to 23.9 percent of American adults), 45 Jews (8.4 percent of Congress, compared to 1.7 percent of American adults), and 14 Mormons (2.6 percent of Congress, compared to 1.7 percent of American adults).
The 110th Congress represented a new and important milestone for American politics. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) became the first Muslim elected to Congress in 2006, and Reps. Hank Johnson (D-GA) and Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI) became the first elected Buddhists. Then André Carson (D-IN) became, in a special mid-term election, the second Muslim representative. Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA), first elected to Congress in 1972, became the first public atheist congressman when he announced that he did not believe in a supreme being. All five of these groundbreaking representatives were re-elected in 2008.
Party loyalty among religious members has also diversified. Catholic members of Congress were overwhelmingly Democrats in 1960, but 35 percent of Catholic members were Republicans by 1970, and 43 percent were Republicans by 1994. Today, that number is 29 percent.
Even though the religious diversity in today’s Congress closely aligns with American religious diversity more broadly, statistics indicate that the American public does not necessarily vote along religious lines.
Voters in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Georgia, and Hawaii, for example, are not bound by their own religious affiliations. Both senators from Wisconsin are Jewish, even though the Wisconsin population is less than 0.5 percent Jewish. Muslims make up less than 1 percent of Rep. Ellison’s district in St. Paul and approximately 0.26 percent of Rep. Carson’s district in Indianapolis. Georgia has a population that is over 82 percent Christian, but it elected and re-elected a Buddhist representative. The Buddhist populations of Georgia and Hawaii—home to the other Buddhist representative—are too small to count.
This pluralism is not easy to develop. Rep. Ellison attracted public scrutiny for using the Qur’an for his oath of office and faced misunderstanding and misplaced fear simply because he was Muslim. But religious diversity continues to grow despite these tensions and stereotypes. Like many pioneers before him, Ellison has paved the way for Muslims and other underrepresented minorities in the future.
Religious diversity is both a driver and the outcome of a healthy, thriving democracy where a plurality of voices are welcomed, discussed, embraced, and scrutinized in the public sphere. At a time when sectarian violence and religious extremism continue to be the reality for communities and nations the world over, Americans should neither take for granted—nor overlook—our diverse, devout governing body.
Surely, there is still progress to be made. Some groups remain overrepresented in Congress and others—notably secular atheists among them—should have more representation. But just as the first Catholics and Jews overcame challenges and set the stage for a thriving Jewish and Catholic population in Congress, so too have our Muslim, Buddhist, and secular groundbreakers paved the way for future representatives in their own groups and those not yet represented.
As we continue down that path to increased religious diversity, the 111th Congress is a snapshot and foreshadow of our founding fathers’ vision for American democracy.
Sarah Dreier is the Assistant to the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative and serves as an assistant to senior research fellows.