This Week in God

THIS WEEK IN GOD…. First up from the God Machine this week, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released an interesting report yesterday, documenting the faiths of members of Congress.

Members of Congress are often accused of being out of touch with average citizens, but an examination of the religious affiliations of U.S. senators and representatives shows that, on one very basic level, Congress looks much like the rest of the country. Although a majority of the members of the new, 111th Congress, which will be sworn in on Jan. 6, are Protestants, Congress – like the nation as a whole – is much more religiously diverse than it was 50 years ago. Indeed, a comparison of the religious affiliations of the new Congress with religious demographic information from the Pew Forum’s recent U.S. Religious Landscape Survey of over 35,000 American adults finds that some smaller religious groups, notably Catholics, Jews and Mormons, are better represented in Congress than they are in the population as a whole. However, certain other smaller religious groups, including Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus, still are somewhat underrepresented in Congress relative to their share of the U.S. population.

The study finds that there is at least one major difference between Congress and the nation as a whole: Members of Congress are much more likely than the public overall to say they are affiliated with a particular religion. Only five members of the new Congress (about 1%) did not specify a religious affiliation, according to information gathered by Congressional Quarterly and the Pew Forum, and no members specifically said they were unaffiliated. By contrast, the Landscape Survey found that individuals who are not affiliated with a particular faith make up about one-sixth (16.1%) of the adult population, making this one of the largest “religious” group in the U.S.

It’s especially interesting to see how the religious makeup of Congress has changed over the last generation or two. The report noted, for example, that the total percentage of Protestants in Congress has dropped from 74.1% in 1961 to 54.7% today, while Catholic representation has nearly doubled (18.8% to 30.1%), and the percentage of Jewish members has tripled (2.3% to 8.4%). What’s more, there are two Muslims and two Buddhists who began serving in Congress in 2007 — all of whom were firsts for the institution.

For the record, there is still only one member of Congress, Pete Stark (D-Calif.), a self-identified Unitarian, who publicly concedes that he does not believe in a Supreme Being.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* A federal judge has ruled that South Carolina may no longer issue a special “Christian” license plate featuring a cross, a stained-glass window, and the words “I Believe.” U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie concluded that the plates violate the separation of church and state, and elevated one faith above others. The lawsuit prompting the decision was brought on behalf of four local clergy: the Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Summers, Rabbi Sanford T. Marcus, the Rev. Dr. Robert M. Knight and the Rev. Dr. Neal Jones as well as the Hindu American Foundation and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

* In Las Vegas, it’s very easy to get married, but in order to get a license to perform the ceremony, Nevada law mandates that applicants be tied to a religious congregation. Two national groups — the American Humanist Assn. and the Center for Inquiry — are asking the state legislature to change the law, and will file a lawsuit challenging the mandate if lawmakers decline.

* And just as an aside, seeing that we’re just a few days from Christmas, I thought I’d mention that it seems like the “war on Christmas” nonsense is a lot quieter this year. It’s likely that people just got sick of hearing the nonsense, but I also suppose that in the midst of a financial crisis, it’s harder for Fox News and the religious right to rationalize national boycotts of struggling retailers.

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