By Tom Strode
WASHINGTON (BP) – Self-identified Protestant Christians – including more than 30 Southern Baptists – continue to make up by far the largest religious group in Congress.
Protestants total 293 members, or 55 percent, of the 116th Congress, according to a study published Jan. 3 by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. The analysis of data on members of the Senate and House of Representatives showed a decline of six Protestants from the previous Congress.
The largest Protestant category is "unspecified/other," which consists of 80 members who identify themselves by such descriptions as Christian, evangelical or Protestant without citing a denomination. The general category of Baptists is the next largest with 72 members, the same as in the 2017-18 session.
Christians – an identification that includes Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Mormons in Pew's analysis – dominate the religious makeup of the legislative body with 471 members or 88 percent of Congress. The new figure reflects a three percent decline in Christians from the 115th Congress.
Catholics make up the second largest religious group next to Protestants in Congress at 163 members or 31 percent.
Protestant and Catholic makeup of Congress has remained steady during the last six sessions dating to 2009, according to Pew. In that span, Protestant numbers have been between a low of 293 this year and a high of 307, while Catholics have totaled from 156 to 168.
Historian Thomas Kidd pointed to a couple of takeaways from the latest congressional numbers.
"To me, this suggests that Christian denominations – especially mainline Protestants – still hold a lot of cultural sway in America, in spite of the massive media coverage given to the unaffiliated, or 'nones,' over the past decade," said Kidd, distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and prolific author on American religious history.
"The religious composition of Congress is largely a story of historic continuity, especially in comparison to the (much smaller) Supreme Court, where Protestant affiliation has nearly vanished," he told Baptist Press in written comments.
The nine-member high court has five Catholic and three Jewish justices. Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch reportedly has attended the Episcopal Church as an adult but grew up in the Catholic Church.
The two major political parties diverge on religious makeup in Congress:
– Republicans in Congress identify themselves almost unanimously as Christians. There are 250 GOP members who self-identify as Christians by Pew's definition -- all 53 senators and 197 representatives. Two Jewish representatives are the only other Republicans.
– Democrats are more diverse. While 221 (78 percent) identify as Christians, 32 (11 percent) are Jewish and 18 identify as "don't know/refused." There are three Muslims, including women (2) for the first time; three Hindus; two Buddhists; two Unitarian Universalists; and one "unaffiliated," new Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
At least six senators and 25 representatives who are members of Southern Baptist churches held their seats in the latest Congress. All except Rep. Al Green of Texas are Republicans. Two Southern Baptists in the Senate – Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Roger Wicker of Mississippi – won re-election in November, while four others were not up for re-election.
The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) is "always grateful when our Southern Baptist brothers and sisters are elected to Congress," though "the issues we represent affect much more than Southern Baptists…," said Daniel Darling, the entity's vice president for communications. And while the ERLC has great relationships with members of Congress across denominations, he told BP in written remarks, the ERLC seeks "to build special relationships with those SBC members and their staffs, and we find that sharing a common faith tradition helps us in our advocacy because we are working from many of the same assumptions."
A recent example, Darling said, involved the ERLC's work in 2018 with Reps. Mark Walker of North Carolina and Mike Johnson of Louisiana, as well as Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, in an attempt to repeal a law that requires churches and other non-profit organizations to pay taxes on such employee benefits as parking and transportation. Congress has yet to rescind it.
"Because of their involvement in and leadership of SBC churches, they understand the harm that this tax could cause churches both financially and for religious liberty," Darling said. "That kind of shared lived experience is super-helpful to advocacy. The issues became more than theoretical."
The Pew analysis -- based on data collected by the news publication CQ Roll Call – showed some differences between Congress and the adult American public. For instance:
– While 88 percent of Congress identifies as Christian, 71 percent of Americans do.
– Though only one in 535 congressional members is "unaffiliated," 23 percent of Americans are "unaffiliated" or "nones."
Protestants dominated the makeup of the federal legislative body in the distant past before Congress became more diverse. In the 1961-62 session, 398 senators and representatives identified as Protestant, according to Pew's report based on information from the Library of Congress. Another 100 were Catholics, which meant 498 of the 535 congressional members identified themselves with the Christian religion.
Since 1961, Catholic members have increased from 100 to 163, Jewish members from 12 to 34 and "don’t know/refused" from five to 18, according to Pew.
Below are the incumbent senators and representatives whom BP has identified as members of Southern Baptist churches based on information from the churches or the congressional offices. This list is based on church membership, not attendance.
Arkansas – Sen. John Boozman, R, second term.
Mississippi – Sen. Roger Wicker, R, third term.
Missouri – Sen. Roy Blunt, R, second term.
Oklahoma – Sen. James Lankford, R, first full term.
South Carolina – Sen. Lindsey Graham, R, fourth term.
Texas – Sen. Ted Cruz, R, second term.
House of Representatives
Arkansas: Rep. Rick Crawford, R, 1st District, fifth term. Rep. Steve Womack, R., 3rd District, fifth term. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R, 4th District, third term.
Florida: Rep. Matt Gaetz, R, 1st District, second term. Rep. Daniel Webster, R, 11th District, fifth term. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R, 16th District, eighth term.
Georgia: Rep. Austin Scott, R., 8th District, fifth term. Rep. Doug Collins, R., 9th District, fourth term. Rep. Jody Hice, R, 10th District, third term. Rep. Tom Graves, R, 14th District, fourth term.
Kentucky: Rep. Harold Rogers, R, 5th District, 20th term.
Louisiana: Rep. Mike Johnson, R, 4th District, second term. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R, 5th District, second term.
Missouri: Rep. Sam Graves, R, 6th District, 10th term.
North Carolina: Rep. George Holding, R, 2nd District, fourth term. Rep. Mark Walker, 6th District, third term. Rep. David Rouzer, R, 7th District, third term.
Oklahoma: Rep. Frank Lucas, R, 3rd District, 14th term.
South Carolina: Rep. Jeff Duncan, R, 3rd District, fifth term.
Texas: Rep. Louie Gohmert, R, 1st District, eighth term. Rep. Al Green, D, 9th District, eighth term. Rep. Mike Conaway, R, 11th District, eighth term. Rep. Randy Weber, R, 14th District, fourth term. Rep. Bill Flores, R, 17th District, fifth term. Rep. Brian Babin, R, 36th District, third term.
If you know of newly elected senators or representatives who are members of Southern Baptist churches, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Pew report is available online here.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.
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