January 4th, 2013
06:35 AM ET
By Dan Merica, CNN
Washington (CNN)– The 113th Congress is being heralded for its number of women and minorities, but that diversity extends to religion, too. Newly revised numbers released by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life show the 113th Congress' freshmen class is more religiously diverse than the lawmakers they will be joining in Congress.
While 57.6% of incumbents, a majority of Congress, identify as Protestants, that number is lower among freshmen legislators, of whom 48.2% identify as Protestants, according to the study. Additionally, there are more unaffiliated, Unitarian, Hindu and Buddhists in the 113th Congress freshman class than in classes before.
These numbers were updated by Pew after House seats were finalized and the new members of Congress were sworn in.
This increase in diversity means a number of religious firsts for Capitol Hill: the first Hindu to serve in either legislative body, the first Buddhist to serve in the Senate and the first member of either chamber to describe their religion as "none."
Hawaii Democrat Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu elected to Congress, took Thursday's oath of office on the Bhagavad Gita, an essential piece of Hindu scripture. Her candidacy and electoral victory was heralded by the Hindu community, especially political groups, across the country.
For Gabbard, the emphasis Hindus put on service is what she brings with her to Congress.
"What I bring from my practice is a great importance and motivation on service and I think that really is the most important focus as we head into the 113th Congress," Gabbard said at an event honoring the women of the Democratic caucus on Thursday. "If we keep that at the forefront then I know we will be headed in a good direction."
In addition to being the first Hindu in Congress, Gabbard shares a first because of her service in the military. She and Illinois Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth, another freshman, are the first female combat veterans to serve in Congress.
Standing outside the Capitol on a brisk Washington morning, Gabbard said: "Those personal experiences and the background that I bring give me great opportunity to be of service not only to the people of Hawaii and the people of our country."
Hawaii also elected the first Buddhist to the Senate in Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Hirono said, "There need to be many more of us in here. I am going to make sure that happens."
Although religious diversity has increased in both legislative bodies, that does not mean Congress is directly representative of the entire faith community.
While the entire United States is 48% Protestant, according to Pew, 56.1% of the members of Congress identify with that faith. Additionally, Catholics, Mormons and Jews are all overrepresented when compared to the percentage of American adults who identify with each faith.
Some faiths are also underrepresented. While 17% of America is Baptist, 13.7% of the 113th Congress identifies as such.
The starkest gap is among the unaffiliated - a group that includes atheists, agnostics and people who choose not to affiliate with an organized religion. Though 20% of the population falls into this group, only one member, Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, identifies as a "none."
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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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.