Faith on the Hill

A new study by the Pew Forum analyzing the religious affiliation of Congress shows American politicians overwhelmingly self-identify as religious. The study, which polled every member of Congress, found only one representative who identified as an atheist (although the individual in question, Rep. Pete Stark, is also a Unitarian, thus placing  him as religious in the poll results), and six members who refused to answer.

Most members of Congress identified as Christian (Protestant and Catholic), but there are representatives of all major world faiths, including Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, but not Hinduism or Jehovah’s Witness.

The results compare the makeup of Congress to that of the American public at large, and generally finds things to be even, except in unaffiliated category. Judaism and Christianity are slightly overrepresented (Protestants by about 5%, Catholics by 6%, Jews by 5.5%), but other world religions are proportionally represented. Again, except in the case of those who are not religiously affiliated.

Why is that the case? While 20% of the American population claims to be non-religious, only one member of Congress is willing to identify himself as an atheist. You would think, given the location of many House districts, that it would be fairly easy for an open atheist to gain votes. Is atheism closeted in America? Since 1961, not a single member has self-identified as non-religious, and this during a time period in which Protestants in Congress have dropped by 17%.

It appears there is still a religious test of sorts for politicians in America. While I can imagine an urban House district electing an atheist, it would be all but impossible to do so in a state-wide election. In my state of Missouri, an atheist or agnostic (or anyone besides a Christian, to be honest) may find support in Columbia or St. Louis, but would find very little support in the Ozarks or the Bootheel.

And this leads to a much larger question: would any Christian readers have a problem voting for an avowed atheist? (As opposed to the many atheists we have voted for who pretended to be religious.) Imagine a candidate for Senate with whom you agreed politically, but not religiously. Could you vote for such a candidate? When you vote, do you seriously take into account a person’s religion or are other factors more important?

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