In a previous post, I wrote about the need for greater representation in Congress for the religiously unaffiliated. And in the 2012 election, the faithless got a bump. The 113th Congress is, in fact, the most religiously diverse Congress in the legislature’s history. But while this is a positive sign, it also reveals just how far the irreligious have to go in order to gain any significant political clout in Congress. For instance, conservative atheists are out of luck if they want to write to their congress member about the separation of state. The recently included non-Christian groups are comprised entirely of Democrats. All of the members of Congress who did not specify a religion are Democrats, also. When as many as one in five Americans identify as unbelievers, it’s alarming to see that Congress does not represent the needs of this enormous voting block. As the newest class gets sworn in this week, let’s take a look at the freshmen congress members.
Hawaii is not just the birthplace of the president. Not only does the Aloha State boast Colleen Hanabusaa, the third Buddhist Congress member in U.S. history, it will also introduce the first Hindu, Tulsi Gabbard in the House of Representatives. Gabbard Gabbard defeated the Republican opponent David “Kawika” Crowley (perhaps the only homeless man to be nominated for Congress on a major party ticket). Ami Bera, who was elected for the first time in 2012 to represent California’s 7th congressional district, was also raised Hindu but now identifies as a Unitarian Universalist, so he is technically counted as a Unitarian Universalist, instead. He will be the only Unitarian Universalist in the 113th Congress. Mazie Hirono will be the first female Senator from Hawaii, the first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate, the first U.S. Senator born in Japan, and the nation’s first Buddhist Senator. She was formerly one of the first Buddhist Representatives in the House along with Hank Johnson when the two won election in 2006.
For years, the only openly atheist Democrat in the House was Republican Pete Stark from California. Elected back in 1973, Stark affirmed that he was a Unitarian Universalist; later he came out as an atheist in 2007. Representative Stark lost his bid for re-election last November to fellow Democrat Eric Swalwell. However, newly-elected Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has been named the first Representative to affirm no religion ever elected to Congress. Shortly after winning office, though, Sinema started to back pedal. In a series of correspondence with Hement Mehta and others, Sinema’s Communications Director Justin Unga tried to set the record straight by reporting that “…Sinema does not consider herself a nonbeliever” adding that “Kyrsten believes the terms ‘nontheist,’ ‘atheist’ or ‘nonbeliever’ are not befitting of her life’s work…”, although Unga was quick to add that she “believes that a secular approach is the best way to achieve… (a) good government.” Sinema is not the only religiously unaffiliated Representative, though. Several of her peers have also declined to mention their religious affiliation. Curiously all of them Democrats; Representative Judy Chu and Representative Jared Huffman of California, Representative Tammy Duckworth and Rep. Bill Foster of Illinois, Representative John F. Tierney of Massachusetts, Representative Earl Blumenauer and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon, Representative Mark Pocan and Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado.
This most recent class reflects a demographic shift going on in the United States, too. Since the 1960s, Protestants are becoming a smaller proportion of the general population and their representation in Congress is commensurately falling as well. Despite this, some groups have increased their representation over the last election; for instance, Baptists have increased their representation in Congress since the last election. And while the proportion of Protestants as a whole in Congress exceeds the proportion in the population, some groups like Lutherans are given roughly equal representation in both the House and Senate. The biggest discrepancy by far is the number of unaffiliated Americans; the “nones”, as it were. Twenty percent, as many a one-in-five Americans, would describe themselves as unaffiliated. Yet only Kyrsten Sinema represents them in Congress. And she does not want appear to do so publicly.
The number of Catholics in Congress has risen steadily over the last fifty years too, perhaps as a reflection of the increasing number of Hispanic Americans living in the U.S. As the largest minority in the United States, Latinos wield a tremendous amount of power in political elections, especially in the Southwest. We can see this clearly in the most recent election where Barack Obama got a huge bump from get out the vote campaigns targeting Hispanic voters, ultimately allowing him to overtake Mitt Romney in states like Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. The recent trend towards secularism in America is perhaps tempered by the influx of Latinos in the United States, who are predominantly Catholic. These two seemingly contradictory trends could largely determine changes in the religious makeup of the U.S. over the next fifty years, resulting in an America that is much more secular on the whole yet with a large Catholic minority. These demographic transitions will continue to impact the makeup of Congress well into the next decade.
Perhaps the most clear signal to come from this election cycle is that in order to reflect the demographics of the United States, those unaffiliated with a religion must be better represented in Congress in order to get their voices heard. The first figure represents the current religious makeup of the 113th Congress and the second figure represents how far we have to go before we can achieve an accurate representation in the legislature for the U.S. as a whole. And this graph doesn’t account for the diversity of protestant or non-Christian faiths. Instead those groups have been lumped into categories like “Other” because they make up such a small proportion of the population that their sliver in the pie chart would be too hard to see.
In order to accurately reflect the concerns of Americans, Congress would have to become far more secular, with at least 20 Senators and 80 Representatives who decline to state any religious affiliation. What would Congress look like if the diversity of the American voters were reflected in the legislature? Notice how figure 2 differs from figure 1. Protestants and Jewish Representatives would lose some sway in a realistic Congress, but the “nones” would stand to benefit from a more accurate representation in the legislature. In order to transition from the first figure to a legislature that more resembles the second figure, we need to get more religiously unaffiliated candidates to run for public office. Change is not going to come easily and nor will it quickly. But the only way to change the political system in the U.S. is to engage it. The godless must campaign for the values we all hold. They must also vote for candidates that do run as champions of science and reason and the Separation of Church and State. In order to gain representation in Congress, we irreligious need brave individuals willing to campaign for the separation of church and state where the religious views of one group are not legislated on the rest of us.