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January 7th, 2011
10:59 AM ET

My Take: U.S. is Christian nation, Congress data shows

Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Years ago, a graduate student and I spent untold hours trying to track down the religious affiliations of various state and national politicians — all in an effort to see which religious groups had more political clout, and which had less. I am happy to report that this work is now being done, at least for the U.S. Congress, by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

“Faith on the Hill: The Religious Composition of the 112th Congress" tells us a lot of things we already knew, but enough new things to make for interesting reading.

The first bit of old news is that the U.S. House and Senate are extraordinarily religious. Although the Constitution forbids any religious test for office, most U.S. citizens impose one on their representatives. There is only one avowed atheist among the 535 members of the House and Senate: Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.). And while 16 percent of U.S. adults refuse to affiliate with any one religious group, zero members of the 112th Congress are religiously unaffiliated. (Stark identifies as a Unitarian.)

Some newer news is that many denominations now losing vigor on our main streets are alive and well and wielding power in our nation's capitol.

I was raised Episcopalian, and I have long been intrigued by the ability of Episcopalian leaders to hold onto the reins of political power even as the portion of Episcopalians in the U.S. population has shrunk to about 1.5 percent. Over a quarter of U.S. presidents — from George Washington to George H.W. Bush — have been Anglicans or Episcopalians.

While I was doing my research on the religious affiliations of U.S. politicians, I measured this discrepancy by something I called the “denominational power index,” or DPI. You generate this figure by dividing the portion of U.S. politicians of a particular denomination (in this case members of the 112th Congress) by the portion of U.S. adults. So, according to this new Pew data, Episcopalians have a hearty DPI of 5.1 (7.7 percent of this Congress divided by 1.5 percent of the adult population), compared with, say, Baptists who have a meager DPI of 0.7 (12.7 percent of this Congress divided by 17.2 percent of U.S. adults).

To put it another way, if Baptists were as overrepresented, proportionately, in this Congress as Episcopalians are, there would be 473 Baptists in the House and the Senate rather than just 68.  And if Episcopalians were as underrepresented as Baptists there would be just 6 Episcopalians in Congress rather than 41.

Looking at this new Pew Forum data through the prism of the DPI finds three overrepresented groups (with high DPIs):

* Episcopalians: 7.7 percent of Congress, 1.5 percent of U.S. adults, for a DPI of 5.1
* Jews: 7.3 percent of Congress, 1.7 percent of U.S. adults, for a DPI of 4.3
* Presbyterians: 8.4 percent of Congress, 2.7 percent of U.S. adults, for a DPI of 3.1

Underrrepresented groups (with low DPIs) include:

* Baptists: 12.7 percent of Congress, 17.2 percent of U.S. adults, for a DPI of 0.7
* Nondenominational Protestants:  0.4 percent of Congress, 4.5 percent of U.S. adults, for a DPI of 0.1
* Pentecostals: 0.0 percent of Congress, 4.4 percent of U.S. adults, for a DPI of 0.0

What does this data tell us? It says, first, that the mainline Protestant denominations, whose numbers are plummeting over the last generation in the general population, continue to hold their own in national politics. Americans may not want to be Episcopalians or Presbyterians or Methodists (who sport a DPI of 1.5) as much as they did in the past, but they continue to want to vote for members of these tried and true denominations.

Second, this data says that evangelicals, whom many of my New York City friends imagine are overrunning Washington, actually lag in influence there. Each of the three DPI laggards — Baptists, nondenominational Protestants and Pentecostals — are groups we typically associate with evangelical piety.

Finally, this study tells us that, while the country is doubtlessly becoming more religiously diverse, it remains, at least in its corridors of power, very much a Christian country. Yes, the U.S. Congress now has three Buddhists (Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia, and  Reps. Colleen Hanabusa and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii) and two Muslims (Rep. Andre Carson of Indiana and Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota). But the DPIs of both Catholics and Protestants in the aggregate exceed 1.0, which is to say that each of these Christian groups enjoys more influence in Washington than they do on America writ large.

Is this a Christian nation? No way, says the Constitution. But U.S. voters are telling us something else altogether.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Baptist • Christianity • Church and state • Episcopal • Leaders • Politics • Polls • United States

soundoff (61 Responses)
  1. Tellurian

    The Pew results show what is wrong with Congress – too many gullible and naive religious "believers" in fantasies and not enough skeptical and logical, unaffiliated agnostics and atheists.

    January 8, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  2. Water to whine

    The problem with this article and its author is naivety(yet again). Just because a bunch of politicians claim to be religious doesn't mean they are. Politicians will claim a lot of things to get votes. Politicians are always more likely to be seen in church during an election year than in a non-election year. I have had the opportunity to be around national politicians, and my experiance has been that they are not Christian in the way they conduct their personal lives. However, if asked, they will almost always claim to be devout. The other thing this atrticle claims is that voters decide on who to vote for based on the canidate's religious affiliation. This is not the case, in my opinion. I get involved in political debates on a daily basis. The religious affiliation of a politician rarely comes up, unless the discussion is about religius rights. The fact is, politicians chosse to feign religious devotion in order to fit into a stereotypical politician mold.

    January 8, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  3. Dave Mauriello

    The prison population sin this country overwhelmingly identify themselves as Christians, so should we say Christianity leads to crime or that atheists are more moral? No, I don't think either is fair, largely because there are incentives to appearing to be Christian in prison. It gives the false impression that the inmate is repentant and on the path to being a good citizen, which then influences parole hearings.

    Likewise, politicians believe that in order to get elected, they have to appear to be good Christians, or as Obama demonstrated in his campaign, a "committed Christian". So can we honestly believe they all are believers, or are they gaming the system like the inmates in prison? As long as there's an incentive for either to appear to be Christians, then we can never know for sure what they believe.

    January 8, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • RightTurnClyde

      Jesus was a condemned prisoner. He was tortured and nailed on a board. He was executed: the death penalty. If anyone has compassion for prisoners Jesus does. He told Matthew "I was in prison and ye visited me." Jesus is hope and prisoners have little hop. Through many dangers toils and snares I have already come ... it's grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home..." Hope springs eternal in soldiers and sailors and prisoners and victims of disasters and mayhem. It is very clear that of the posters on this (and other boards) have been well fed and comfortable all of their spoiled-child lives. They have no sense of despair or hope. They have no compassion, no ability to feel or even to commiserate because they have been well-coddled all of their lives. When yo are rich life cannot touch you ..

      January 8, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • wwajdblogger

      I am glad that politicians identify themselves as good Christians. Otherwise, I would have a hard time knowing who to vote for. This is because I have no idea what to think for myself without reading the Bible.

      January 9, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  4. Pat

    All this debate makes me ask this: What if there really was no religion at all, none whatsoever? Would the world really be a better place? "You bet!" some of you would shout. " No religious wars, no religious fanatics, no televangical scam artists, no tax-dodging churches, no pedophic priests/whoring pastors etc., ect." True, those things would not exist, but would people actually be more civil, more law-abiding and less corrupt as a result? Human nature being what it is, I tend to doubt there would be much improvement because there will still be wars, fanatics, scam artists, tax dodgers, pedophiles, and what-not, no matter how much emphasis is placed on science and rational thought. That's my take on it.

    January 8, 2011 at 4:37 am |
    • K.Mason

      @Pat

      Taking away religion takes away a cover for wars, fanatics, scam artists, and pedophiles.

      Religion shuts down debates on important topics that lead to better moral and human understanding–they believe answers are written.

      Religion also makes debates about things that should not be debated and can shut down progress on things like stem cell research, gay rights, and teaching evolution.

      January 8, 2011 at 8:19 am |
    • RightTurnClyde

      There cannot be no religion at all. You BELIEVE things (rightly or wrongly) .. your own being is based on (survives on) beliefs. You have to believe and you do believe. It is impossible (for anyone) not to believe.

      January 8, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • NL

      People are far too forgiving of religious folks who commit crimes. Take away the easy redemption in the eyes of society and people may think twice before acting.

      January 9, 2011 at 12:12 am |
  5. Paul

    And the irony is that Jesus told his followers to be 'no part of the world'. Even showing how much he detested the political system of his day! Such a simple thing.

    January 8, 2011 at 4:19 am |
  6. Muneef

    Well guys you had it the USA is a Christian Country because on these basis we deal with here financially as"In God we Trust" as well politicly because when they solute the flag they say God save America...well then you are a minority you are nothing and not taken account?! Thought you said that when country was established I was not taken as religious states by the founding fathers?? Seems you were proven wrong?
    Well do not get upset we have among us Muslims Arabs or non Arabs people who are more atheist than you who do not believe in God nor Religion most are those educated in Communist countries and others who do what people do but believe in nothing but them selves and worship alcohol,women,gambling,money,power but never God.
    Just like you have many beliefs or non beliefs at yours we do have at ours although concealed and that is the most dangers of all since all accusations as a result of their acts end up blamed to Islam as yours now ends up to Christianity being blamed for...!?

    January 7, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  7. Louis

    The real problem with religious members of Congress is that they let their religious beliefs interfere in the administration of government. Why is " In God We Trust" on our money? Why do we swear on the bible? Have any of our religious zealot politicians ever read Thomas Jefferson, he had no use for religion. I prefer to lean on "reason' rather than "faith" in running my life.

    January 7, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • NL

      As Obama has proven, the real problem with faith in office is that a politician can be made to jump through flaming hoops trying to maintain their image of being pious. The same would apply to any Christian Right leader elected to office. They start looking a little liberal all you gotta do is give a sharp tug on their faith leash and they'll heel right quick.

      January 8, 2011 at 12:33 am |
  8. Bob

    You state that many voters impose their religious standards on their leaders. How many have said they're christian while really being atheist?

    January 7, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  9. Paul C

    Blaise hits the point on the head. Sloppy thinking to conflate affiliation with a "Christian nation." Ask any of your overrepresented Episcopal, Presbyterian, or Jewish legislators if their affiliation makes this a Christian nation. Most would react with surprise if not horror.

    More to the point, what does being Christian mean, beyond affiliation? Consider what Jesus Christ said about poverty and what that means in light of the poverty statistics in this country; can we claim to be a Christian nation?! Consider the Golden Rule, written into the theological DNA of most religious traditions, and think about the tenor of discourse today, nationally and internationally. Not just in the halls of Congress but in this discussion. Given our addiction to conflict, can we consider ourselves 'religious' or 'spiritual' communities?

    The most important point: If you embrace the interfaith diversity we live in today and take the time to make friends with those you've considered enemies, huge good results can follow, especially if you begin with mutual respect. The tragedy of our current polarization is in what we are missing. The Rossmoor Interfaith Council in the hills of northern California's East Bay for years has sponsored a group of atheists and religious folk who get together regularly to talk about what they agree and disagree about. Deep friendships and good will have developed, creating a interfaith culture that should inspire the rest of us.

    January 7, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  10. victim of democrat hypocrisy

    There are no gods or goddesses, demons or devils, ghosts or goblins. Religion was invented by man to control the masses.
    By your own admission, America has never been less a Christian nation than it is now.

    January 7, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
  11. PsiCop

    First of all, Prothero has to be smart enough to know that veracity is not a popularity contest. That a majority of Americans are Christian does not mean all Americans should be Christian.

    Second, if he's sure he wants to go with the position that all Americans must be Christian - or if anyone else does - I invite him/them to give it their best shot. Go ahead, Convert me. If you're so sure I'm required to become a Christian, then why would you NOT force me to convert? Go for it.

    January 7, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • a christian immigrant

      No one that's christian should force you to become christian. We are not muslums, and Jesus never told us to force anyone into christianity.

      January 7, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      @a christian immigrant

      So, there's never been a war where the victors imposed your brand of silliness on the vanquished? I wonder how long it will take to find just one example...

      January 7, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      @a christian immigrant

      Less than 10 seconds...

      While wiki is not always the definitive reference, in the interest of being "fair" to all houses-of-stupidity, this article includes information about forces conversions for several religions:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forced_conversion

      January 7, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
    • NL

      a christian immigrant-
      Better brush up on the history of Christianity's spread throughout the world. Without 'force' being used the faith would likely not have spread far beyond the eastern Mediterranean.

      January 8, 2011 at 12:20 am |
    • Water to whine

      @ a christian immigrant
      The New Testamant does tell its believers to go out and convert the world. This leads to interpretations that include forced coversion as well as forced indoctrination. It has happened many times in the past and is happening as we speak with Christianity.

      January 8, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  12. Anglican

    Reality. I just want to use Air Force One. On big flying party. Guess I 'll have to run for Pres. Ha Ha. Peace.

    January 7, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  13. Blaise

    It may be a Christian REPRESENTED Nation...for now. This does not make it a "Christian Nation". The First Amendment gives us the right to be free from religious theocracy. Nice try, but you cannot undo the very basis of this country. FREEDOM!

    January 7, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  14. Nonimus

    Stephen Prothero,
    You may have missed an important item:
    "Don't Know/Refused: " 1.1 percent of Congress, 0.8 percent of U.S. adults, for a DPI of 1.375 (if my math is correct)

    In my opinion, the 'Don't know/Refused' response is the best response for member of Congress to any and all religious affiliation questions. It shouldn't be a factor.

    January 7, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Amen to that!

      January 7, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  15. Frogist

    I would like to see this study over a number of years. What's the trend from decade to decade? Just curious.
    But I suppose it is an interesting take on what a person means by "Christian nation". People always try to represent that as a historical fact and back that up with their ideas about the founding fathers. Or those who erroneously equate the const!tutional guarantees with Christian tenets to prove we must be a Christian nation. But the idea that since our elected leaders are by far Christian, and supported by the populace gives some merit to the term. But only if we voted for them because they were Christian, and if those elected take actions solely on their religious stance. And even then we would have to be sure that those leaders are in the majority and vote together. And even after that, we could only say we are a Christian nation... at a single point in time. It is temporary, making it unwise to say, "We are a Christian Nation," because that implies a history of that trend and a permanent quality. The only way we can guarantee accuracy in saying "Christian nation" is with a qualifier. e.g. A majority christian population nation, or a nation with christian values, or a nation of elected christians.
    I think maybe that's all moot anyhow. Because no matter what, no one can seem to agree what a real Christian is anyway.
    Just ramblin'

    January 7, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      And very fine ramblin's it is.

      January 7, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Mark: LOL! I try. Glad I did not disappoint! I think it was at least a +2 ramblin'.

      January 7, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Follow the link in the article. Towards the bottom is a chart, "Changes in the Religious Makeup of Congress (1961-2011)"

      January 7, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • Chris

      Integrity by association, blahhh!, makes me gag.

      January 10, 2011 at 8:02 am |
    • NL

      Frogist-
      Many of the Founding Fathers were deists, which is to say that they accepted the existence of a supreme being, specifically a creator, but one who does not intervene in the universe beyond the act of creation. They claimed to reach this conclusion based on reason, but I often wonder what they would have concluded if the scientific explanation for the origins of the universe were available to them at the time? If they had the option of eliminating the need for a creator god altogether, how many of them would not have adopted actual atheism instead?

      January 10, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  16. Vinnie

    "Is this a Christian nation? No way, says the Const-itution. But U.S. voters are telling us something else altogether."

    This is a fallacy of equivocation. In the first sense, the Const-itution is saying that the doctrine of the country does not espouse Christianity (in fact it espouses Secularism). In the second sense, the data is saying that the vast majority of elected representatives are Christian.

    January 7, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • NL

      Were US voters telling us that we were a 'male' nation, or a 'white' nation all those years we only ever voted white males to office? There's a better case for the const.itution saying that than that the US is a Christian nation, wouldn't you say?

      January 7, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • tim staker

      Stinky onions to Steve Prothero, who now gives Christians the opportunity to quote him and say, "The US is a Christian Nation". Such a statement makes other people in this nation who are not Christians into second class citizens.

      January 13, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  17. HotAirAce

    And the slow but sure movement of the USA towards becoming a christian theocracy continues...

    I encourage all non-believers to become more active in resisting this trend and suggest that you go to richarddawkins.net and look at "The OUT Campaign".

    January 7, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
  18. Reality

    Well we have BO, the leader of the Immoral Majority and sometimes Christian/agnostic in the WH and Catholics control the Supreme Court so it appears there is a good balance of power in the land!!!

    January 7, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  19. MarkinFL

    What I get out of this is that atheists are far less bigoted than religious people. An atheist will vote for a Christian but the reverse is far less likely with anyone not professing belief in a religion being perceived as unelectable.
    This just reflects that a majority decides the election. Since that is the entire mechanism for our system of elected gov't, this can hardly count as news.
    It does show that member of certain faiths do wield a disproportionate amount of power. The reasons why are probably varied but certainly include socio-economic status and historical patterns in general.

    January 7, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • NL

      An atheist is likely to be a logical thinker and will vote for the candidate who they judge is best suited for the job of representative. Isn't that always the most important consideration?

      January 7, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      I would like to agree with you gents, but am coming to think that I should ask every candidate a "litmus test" question such as "Do you believe in the literal truth of the ?" If the answer is yes, then I would respond with "Thank you, but based on your answer I will be more likely to vote for someone who does not." Anyone saying yes would be at a disadvantage, but ultimately we should all vote, so I know that I might have to compromise and vote for a believer. I think there's great value in letting political parties and candidates know that claiming to be religious does not guarantee a vote, that it's not always a "good thing" or "box" that must be checked.

      January 7, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • Chris

      Is it bigoted and biased to suggest that atheists are less bigoted? Shouldn't we talk about individuals? It just seems a little too easy to lump such a disparate group of people into one pile.

      January 10, 2011 at 7:58 am |
    • NL

      Chris-
      You're right, the only thing that binds atheists together is their confidence that God does not exist, and even with that there is debate as to where one crosses the line from being an 'agnostic' to becoming an actual 'atheist.'

      Are atheists less bigoted? Well, the best I can say to that is that many atheists tend to be logical thinkers who employ reason. So if you are an atheist holding an opinion about a group, and you want to talk to other atheists, you'd better have good, logical reasons to hold your opinion because they'll likely call you on it if you appear to be unfair. A fair evaluation of a group based on reason is not bigotry, is it?

      January 10, 2011 at 10:02 am |
  20. Reality

    Professor Prothero forgot that it takes money to win a congressional seat.

    From his comments:

    "Looking at this new Pew Forum data through the prism of the DPI finds three overrepresented groups (with high DPIs):

    * Episcopalians: 7.7 percent of Congress, 1.5 percent of U.S. adults, for a DPI of 5.1
    * Jews: 7.3 percent of Congress, 1.7 percent of U.S. adults, for a DPI of 4.3
    * Presbyterians: 8.4 percent of Congress, 2.7 percent of U.S. adults, for a DPI of 3.1"

    And the highest annual incomes per individual and religion in the USA ? e.g. http://www.success-and-culture.net/articles/incomes.shtml

    Jews, Episcopalians, Orthodox Christians, Presbyterians and Lutherans

    January 7, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Anglican

      So, what is your point?

      January 7, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • Reality

      Anglicans have a better shot at being a member of Congress than poorer Baptists.

      January 7, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • Nonimus

      @Reality,
      Interesting point; which religious affiliations have the wealth and power to run a campaign?

      It might also be interesting to see the DPI(?) in the candidate pool, or the success rate of campaigns by religious affiliation.

      January 7, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Reality

      Very interesting...

      Peace...

      January 7, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • K.Mason

      @Reality

      Are you saying America's REAL god is money?

      Perish the thought!

      January 8, 2011 at 8:20 am |
    • Tom Rische

      At least most representatives claim a religious affiliation. That doesn't tell us whether they actually practice those principles or attend services, does it? Watch what they do, not what they say.

      January 13, 2011 at 11:45 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.