American voters, whether believers or not, apparently enjoy being represented by people of faith. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that not a single declared atheist was elected to the 114th Congress of the United States.
The British philosopher John Locke, in his Letter Concerning Toleration, famously argued that in civil society toleration should be granted to all but a few. Prominent among those “not at all to be tolerated” are persons “who deny the being of a God.” Locke’s rigidity in this point stemmed from his belief that atheists are inherently untrustworthy. “Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist,” Locke wrote. “The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all.”
We have come a long way since Locke penned these words in 1689 and few (if any) today would wish to deny to atheists the same right not to believe that people of faith have to believe. Yet when choosing their representatives in government, Americans seem to prefer believers.
The sole self-identified atheist who ran in the last election, Democrat James Woods of Arizona, was trounced by his Republican opponent, Rep. Matt Salmon, 68.5 percent to 31.5 percent.
According to the Pew study, the biggest difference between the composition of Congress and the general public is the percentage of those who say they are religiously unaffiliated. While 16.1% of the US population identifies itself as unaffiliated, just 0.2% of Congress does. The only member of Congress, in fact, to describe herself as religiously unaffiliated is Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.
Both Catholics and Jews are “overrepresented” in Congress, meaning that their percentages on the Hill are somewhat higher than in the general population. Catholics now make up 31% of Congress, while 5.2% is Jewish. In the case of the US population, Catholics make up 23.9% and Jews 1.7%.
Almost all (300) of the 301 Republicans in the new Congress are Christian, and the lone non-Christian is NY Rep. Lee Zeldin, who is Jewish. There was only one Jewish Republican serving in the 113th Congress as well, former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-VA, who lost in his district’s Republican primary.
Congressional Democrats, on the other hand, are somewhat more religiously diverse than Republicans. Only 104 (44%) of the 234 Democrats in the 114th Congress are Protestant, while 83 (35%) are Catholic, 27 (12%) are Jewish, two (1%) are Mormon, two are Buddhist, two are Muslim, one is Hindu and one is unaffiliated.
The Pew Study also provides a historical religious breakdown of Congress, starting with data from 1961-62, allowing for a comparison between the 114th Congress and its predecessors. Protestants, though still the predominant group, have steadily diminished as a percentage of Congress, from 75% in 1961 to 57% in 2015. Catholics have picked up a good deal of the slack, growing from 19% of Congress to 31% in the same period. Mormons have more than doubled their congressional presence, from just 7 members 1961 to 16 in 2015. The Jewish component of Congress has grown even more, from a low of 12 members in 1961 to 28 in 2015, though the years of the greatest Jewish representation of those shown in the study were from the 11th Congress (2009-2010), when there were 45 Jewish members.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.