January 5, 2015

Religious affiliations of members of Congress mirror regional trends

Religious affiliation of members of the 114th Congress

People often elect politicians who are like them. Indeed, a regional comparison of members of Congress with the general public shows that, when it comes to religious affiliation, representatives often share their faith with many of their constituents.

Across the four major U.S. regions (as determined by the Census Bureau), there are correlations between the share of the general public affiliated with certain religious groups and the percentage of members of the House and Senate with the same affiliation, a new Pew Research Center analysis finds. And in some cases where a region has a clear majority or a larger-than-average share belonging to one group, the result is an even larger share of members of that group in Congress.

For instance, the South has the highest percentage of self-identified Christians in the general population (78%) compared with the Northeast, Midwest and West. The South also has the highest share of Christians serving in Congress (96%). The same holds true among Protestants: The South has the highest percentage of Protestants in the general population (61%) and in Congress (76%).

In the Northeast, there are relatively few Protestants among members of Congress (33%) as well as the general population (35%). The Northeast has a higher percentage of Roman Catholics (32%) than any other region, and also has by far the biggest share of Catholic members of Congress (57%). In addition, the Northeast has the highest percentage of Jews in the general population (4%) as well as in Congress (9%).

In a few cases, the correlation between the religion of those in Congress and their constituents is less clear. For example, the West, like the Northeast, has a relatively high percentage of Jewish members of Congress (7%). However, the percentage of Jews among the West’s general population (1%) is similar to that of the South and Midwest, which have smaller Jewish contingents in Congress.

Most Mormon members of Congress (15 out of 16) hail from the West. Not surprisingly, Mormons make up a much higher percentage of the West’s population (6%) than they do of any other region. (About seven-in-ten U.S. Mormons live in the West.)

The only member of Congress who publicly identifies as religiously unaffiliated (Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.) is also from the West, home to the highest percentage of religious “nones” of any region (25%). But throughout the country, the unaffiliated are the group with the biggest discrepancy between the general public and Congress. “Nones” make up more than 15% of each region’s population, but three of the four regions do not have a single religiously unaffiliated member in Congress.

Although identifying as religiously unaffiliated does not necessarily mean one is atheist, politicians may be wary about such an association. About half of Americans (53%) say they would be less likely to support an atheist for president.

Topics: Religion and Government, Religious Affiliation

  1. Photo of Aleksandra Sandstrom

    is a copy editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. ccaffrey2 years ago

    I wish that there were more delineation under “Protestants” particularly since it is the largest category. That broad term can cover everything from Ted Cruz’ dominionism (highly conservative) to Rev. William Barber’s (founder of NC Forward Together/Moral Mondays movement) affiliation Christian Church (Disciples) which historically has, as a whole, been a politically/socially liberal one! The researchers would not have to make the delineation but could ask the respondents to self-identify as either conservative Protestant or moderates or liberal/progressive Protestant. There is WIDE variation among Protestant denominations. I know there are conservative/liberal continuums among the others as well and maybe it wouldn’t hurt to ask that self-definition of all respondents in the questionnaire, particularly because so many on the right vocalize their issue positions in terms of their faith. On a personal note, it might also help remind people that there IS a full continuum of beliefs/and political leanings among people who identify themselves as having a faith tradition…as well as those who don’t. Just a thought for future surveys. Thanks.

  2. James A. Barnhart3 years ago

    Too bad more atheists aren’t in Congress.

  3. Elizabeth dunn3 years ago

    protestants and Catholics are Christian.

  4. Walter Johnson3 years ago

    The real question I would like to know the answer to is what percentage of these members actually regularly attend services of their denomination and what sub percentage seek out those affiliated churches on Sunday (or Saturday depending on the religion) while working the campaign trail. A lot more Americans claim a religion than actually practice the religion in either their personal life conduct or in their church attendance. Talk is cheap but driving to a church also means getting up and arriving on time (or at the least reasonably on time).

  5. sddave3 years ago

    Don’t mistake affiliation with participation/beliefs, there is a huge divergence.

    1. Walter Johnson3 years ago

      I fully agree. That is part of the hypocrisy in America. We care what religion a person claims but ignore whether or not they actually practice it or allow their faith to even influence their votes in Congress.

  6. Gerald FitzGerald3 years ago

    I suspect that for many politicians their religious affiliation is weak and maintained for political or show reasons. You should ask whether they attend church services almost every week or if they believe nearly all that their religion teaches and requires of them.

    If 20% or more of the population is unaffiliated, more than 1% or 2% of politicians should also be unaffiliated based on probabilities. It is my impression that many politicians are less religious and less likely to adhere to religious principles of morality and ethics than the general population of adults. It is more common to talk or brag about one’s religion in the South, which may explain the South’s poll difference from other sections.

  7. Jay B. Kane3 years ago

    Makes sense that Americans won’t elect an atheist: Atheists are the only people who consistently think they are better of being alive than living in the promised land of the happily dead.

  8. marcus3 years ago

    I think that we should just get alone

  9. Alan3 years ago

    It looks to me like Christians and Jews are overrepresented nationwide, while Mormons, the Unaffiliated and “Other” religions are underrepresented.

  10. Dawn Swift-Sadlowski3 years ago

    Inside the Christian Right Dominionist Movement That’s Undermining Democracy

    Here is their goal almost there folks American Christians are no better than the Good Germans 1930.

    Reconstructionists believe that there are three main areas of governance:

    family government,
    church government,
    and civil government.

    Under God’s covenant, the nuclear family is the basic unit. The husband is the head of the family, and wife and children are “in submission” to him. In turn, the husband “submits” to Jesus and to God’s laws as detailed in the Old Testament. The church has its own ecclesiastical structure and governance. Civil government exists to implement God’s laws. All three institutions are under Biblical Law, the implementation of which is called “theonomy.”

    We are screwed.

    1. Christian3 years ago

      Dawn, I don’t know where you formed your ideas. However,they are not accurate. The family is the main Unit. The husband and wife make decisions together for the best interest of the children. Christ said”Husbands love your wife as yourself.” and God above all. They do not “submit” to God’s laws detailed in the Old Testament. The Jewish Religion lives by The Old Testament. If you mean the 10 Commandments.
      Most citizens live by them. Christian or not. They are the basis of civil law. Most Christians love their neighbor and want the best for their community. That is why they run for public office. You are only “screwed” because you are misinformed.

    2. Jamaal3 years ago

      Thank you for pointing this out. It is always funny how Christians play the “sharia law” card but it is pretty very similar to that for almost the entire country existence. Remember ladies and gentleman you have “religious freedom”. Yes the “freedom” to choose Christianity because your parent told you so.

  11. Mike3 years ago

    Somehow Pew goes on a tangent and doesn’t even mention the most obvious message screaming from that graph: Christians are way overrepresented, and the nonreligious (nonaffiliated) are hardly represented at all.

  12. Craig3 years ago

    This isn’t too surprising, but it is disappointing. The “unaffiliated” are still the least represented group in our government. While you are correct in pointing out that not all are atheists, a good percentage are. Even if about half say they would not support an atheist for president, I suspect that an even larger percentage would actually not vote for someone who was openly non-religious.

    1. Walter Johnson3 years ago

      It is likely there are more agnostics who believe in God but not much else besides themselves among than unaffiliated than true atheists. Atheism is hard to understand living in such a wonderful and beautiful universe. Whether the universe started with a release of energy or matter by God doesn’t even matters, since the two are interchangeable in math using Einstein’s famous equation E=MC² with the M mass and the C the speed of light (both in their metric measurements). Just the squared speed of light is a huge number in this equation.

    2. Walter Johnson3 years ago

      It is very unlikely that either a declared atheist or Satanist will ever be President and doubtful that any will even make it into the U. S. House. That is just a fact of political life no matter what you truly believe in the privacy of your own mind.