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. Shade

    RightTurnClyde: "Churches are full of hypocrites and liars."

    and you are full of yourself Clyde

    September 16, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  2. Larry Linn

    "Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together", John Madison.

    January 14, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
  3. Jim O'Connor, Richmond VA

    The fact that someone wears a "Christian" label doesn't make him or her a Christian. Likewise, someone or another said "by their fruits you shall know them." It would be inteesting indeed to compare the voting records of the nominal Christians in the Congress against the teachings of Christ.

    January 13, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  4. frankchimento

    Now, compare the liberal and conservative views in the 112th with the conservative and more liberal views in denominational theology and this makes sense.

    The majority of Christian Democrats will be Episcopalian, Catholic, Methodist... while the majority of Christian Republicans will be Baptist, Pentecostal, Evangelical, etc.

    The statists will always pursue a liberal variation of any absolute truth. Nothing has changed... except the bizarre notion of some that wish America was not a Christian nation.

    January 13, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • CP31

      "The majority of Christian Democrats will be Episcopalian, Catholic, Methodist... while the majority of Christian Republicans will be Baptist, Pentecostal, Evangelical, etc."

      The only source I was able to find on denominational lines between parties showed Catholics slightly over represented in the Democratic population, which would seem to support your claim. However the sum of Protestants (including Evangelical, Mainland and others) was about even, which goes against your argument. Mormons take the most extreme political stance and are almost all Republican. Methodists and Baptists were represented together in the "Other Christian" group which is slightly left leaning. This introduces an ambiguity that further goes against your claim. So are you in the habit of just making stuff up or what, man? The facts don't fit your claim.

      January 29, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  5. Underrrepresented Atheist/Unaffiliated

    Of course the poll is flawed as "No Religion" was not a choice, only "Unaffiliated".
    The flaw is evident, as Unaffiliated wins the underrepresented/DPI contest.
    It is biased journalism not to mention this.

    The most underrepresented groups are:
    Unaffiliated 1% of Congress, 16% of US.
    Non-religious 0.2% of Congress, 5%-15% of US. (does someone has a more valid poll?)

    January 13, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  6. Joe LaBonte

    Okay. two points:
    1: There are few atheists in office. Because most people will not vote for an Atheist. Why run if you have no chance of getting votes?
    2. Just because one votes for someone, does not make them the same. Meaning this: I have no choice but to vote for one christian or another. Since no one logically minded is running, I vote for the lesser of two evils. But that does not mean I am christian becasue I helped put a christian (or muslim, or whatever) into office.

    Such bad conclusions the author makes from the data. He should be ashamed to write such crap.

    January 13, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  7. Edd Doerr

    The religious labels that politicians use are often deceptive and too often tell us little about what the politician really thinks or what his/her values really are. What really counts is the way the politician votes, not what tag he/she wears.

    January 13, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  8. Dumpicles

    So . . . if I'm understanding this correctly, the fact that Jews are overrepresented in Congress in relation to their relative population implies that united states is a Christian nation. Right.

    But what is the point of this article, anyway? It can't just be that the majority of the U.S. populace is Christian. We all know that already. Is Mr. Prothero trying to lay the foundation for making Christianity the official religion of the country? That's ridiculous. No, as I read it, it seems that Mr. Prothero is solely interested in a personal self-congratulatory association with a religion that tends to be active in politics ("I was raised Episcopalian, and I have long been intrigued by the ability of Episcopalian leaders to hold onto the reins of political power"). Really, who cares.

    What about the premise that certain religions just stress public service more than others? A more thorough analysis would calculate the total number of candidates for Congress that associate with each religion. For all we know, the number of Episcopalian Congressmen is lower than expected when compared to the number that run for office. Regardless, there may be particular Congressional districts that are heavily represented by a single religion, and where religion is an important issue to voters. It's a large country, and there are certainly regional differences in demographics. Again, I don't see how you can draw such wide conclusions and paint the country with such a broad brush.

    January 10, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  9. Chris

    Religion has become a team sport. Originally, it was seen a discipline, a way to live life. Why do I need to join a team to live my life? By the grace of God I've been given a life to live as a human being, equal to all others. Is it so important that I carry a blue umbrella like everybody else, or do I have the option of using a green one?
    The lesson is the same; treat others as you would have them treat you. Free your mind from hate and you will live in peace.

    January 10, 2011 at 7:50 am |
  10. Eric G.

    Religion is the blueprint used to control the population with unsubstantiated statements. Politicians follow this blueprint because it has worked in the past. Just look at how both religious and political leaders squirm when they are asked to respond to fact based questions.

    January 9, 2011 at 9:14 am |
  11. RightTurnClyde

    Ref: Congressional Christians ...vis-a-vis Christian nation. Congress persons (to get votes) know how to go to 20 churches an d get votes in each of them. They know how to eat fried chicken dinners, kiss babies, tell dinner stories, press the flesh. So they are Calvinists (Christians() to be sure. You can bet they are not sitting in the pews or singing in the choir. It would not surprise if more than half of the people who say they are Christian are once-a-year Christians .. and some name -only Christians. But in the same vane being a church-goer does not assure than one is anything but a church-goer. Some of the most evil people I ever knew went to church and even led bible study. I am not affiliated with any church (and mostly for that reason). Churches are full of hypocrites and liars. Calvinist Christianity is NOT Nicene Christianity. There is a big difference.

    January 9, 2011 at 12:25 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.