Democrat Kyrsten Sinema first member of Congress to claim no religion

With the 113th Congress being sworn in today, it seems appropriate to take another look at the religious representation of our legislators.

I did this with the Senate last year and it was interesting. In many ways, the religious breakdown of Congress mirrors our society.

Rep.-elect Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., appears at a news conference with newly elected Democratic House members in Washington on Nov. 13 (The Associated Press).

Most notable, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona’s new 9th Congressional District is the first member of Congress to claim no religious affiliation.

Sinema is a fascinating individual who is garnering far more attention for being the first bisexual member of Congress. That and the fact she lived in an abandoned gas station for a time growing up.

In other ways, Congress barely reflects actual society on faith matters. As I noted yesterday, a new Pew Research Center study found that 1.1 billion people have no religious affiliation.

This makes the unaffiliated the third-largest religious group worldwide, behind Christians and Muslims, and about equal in size to the world’s Catholic population.

So Sinema claiming no religious affiliation shouldn’t be considered all that unusual.

Yet it will be because nobody has taken this route before. According to comments in interviews, Sinema said she grew up in a Mormon family.

That isn’t the only surprising faith news to come out of the 113th Congress. The class includes the first Buddhist to serve in the Senate and the first Hindu to serve in either chamber.

As for our own new representative, Scott Perry’s official biography lists his religious affiliation as “Christian.”

Here is the highlights from the Pew Research Center report:

While Congress remains majority Protestant, the institution is far less so today than it was 50 years ago, when nearly three-quarters of the members belonged to Protestant denominations.

Catholics have seen the biggest gains among the 533 members who are scheduled to be sworn in on Jan. 3.1 Catholics picked up seven seats, for a total of 163, raising their share to just over 30%. Protestants and Jews experienced the biggest declines in numerical terms. Jews now hold 33 seats (6%), six fewer than in the 112th Congress, where Jews held 39 seats (7%). Protestants lost eight seats, though they continue to occupy about the same proportion of seats (56%) as in the 112th Congress (57%).

In addition, the Protestant share of each political party in the new Congress is about the same as in the 112th; roughly seven-in-ten Republicans are Protestants, compared with fewer than half of Democrats. However, the members sworn in for the first time in 2013 are less Protestant than the group that entered in 2011; 48% are Protestant, compared with 59% of the previous freshmen.

Mormons continue to hold 15 seats (about 3%), the same as in the previous Congress.

Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Mormons each make up a greater percentage of the members of Congress than of all U.S. adults. The same is true for some subgroups of Protestants, such as Episcopalians and Presbyterians. By contrast, Pentecostals are a much smaller percentage of Congress than of the general public. Due in part to electoral gains in recent years, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus now are represented in Congress in closer proportion to their numbers in the U.S. adult population. But some small religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, are not represented at all in Congress.

About John Hilton

I grew up in Susquehanna County, Pa. and graduated Syracuse University with a dual degree in journalism/political science in 1998. After working for nearly three years for a weekly paper in upstate New York, I came to southcentral Pennsylvania. I spent 13 years as a reporter and editor for The Sentinel in Carlisle and joined the York Daily Record as religion reporter in September 2011.
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