Non-Churchgoers, Bipartisans Have Little Clout in Congress

Democrat Kyrsten Sinema is currently the only "unaffiliated" member of Congress.

The share of Americans “unaffiliated” with a religious denomination is up to 22.8 percent, according to a report released last week by the Pew Research Center. (For a summary of findings, see “Christians Lose Ground, ‘Nones’ Soar in New Portrait of U.S. Religion.”) But the New York Times’s Charles M. Blow notes that only 0.02 percent of Congress—consisting of a single member, Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona—can be described as unaffiliated.

Compared with respondents to the Pew survey, senators and U.S. Representatives are more Protestant (57 percent of Congress vs. 49 percent of the population), more Catholic (30 percent vs. 22 percent), and more Jewish (5 percent vs. 2 percent).

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Blow asks, “How long can this overrepresentation of Christianity and underrepresentation of the unaffiliated last in government?”

Probably as long as there is an American government. At first glance, the Pew report supports the idea of the unaffiliated as what Blow calls “an identity as yet unaware of its power.” The hitch is that the identity doesn’t mean anything beyond an option in a public opinion survey. Many, probably most, of the unaffiliated consider themselves Christian (as Blow reminds us, this fits Abraham Lincoln, who eschewed church attendance but wrote, “I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures”). “Unaffiliated” is certainly not equivalent to “atheist,” a label avoided by Rep. Sinema, who was raised as a Mormon.

The only thing that really unites the unaffiliated is that they are not joiners, and that makes them ill-suited for politics. Many Americans “join” the Sierra Club, or the National Rifle Association, but writing checks to national organizations doesn’t help you find out what’s going on in your neighborhood. Attending a church is a pretty good way to meet people involved in all kinds of other local organizations, and expanding your social circle is a good way to get asked to run for office—and to find potential contributors to your campaign.

There are alternatives to church if you want to make connections in your town or legislative district: parent-teacher organizations, the Chamber of Commerce, neighborhood groups that lobby for better parks or against new apartment buildings, etc. But few of them match a large, long-established church in cutting across income levels, educational backgrounds, and age groups. There will probably be more “unaffiliated” members of Congress in the future, but the “overrepresentation” of churchgoers (which does not necessarily mean an “overrepresentation of Christianity,” as Blow puts it) is a safe bet to continue.

Bipartisanship correlates with shaky districts, not good character

The Lugar Center, a think tank founded by former Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, this week released its “Bipartisan Index” for the 2013-15 congressional session, and—no surprise—lawmakers from competitive districts were ranked as more likely to work with the opposition party. The index was based on how often a legislator co-sponsored bills introduced by members of the other major party, as well as how often his or her own bills attracted co-sponsors from the other side of the aisle.

“What we are measuring in this Index,” wrote Lugar, “is not so much the quality of legislation but rather the efforts of legislators to broaden the appeal of their sponsored legislation, to entertain a wider range of ideas, and to prioritize governance over posturing.”

Lugar’s language is awfully flattering toward members of Congress who find it in their best interest to flash bipartisan bona fides. The highest scores in the Senate went to Republican Susan Collins of Maine, who represents a state that voted twice for Barack Obama; and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who represents a state that voted twice against Obama. The highest scores in the House went to Republicans Chris Gibson and Pete King of New York, who represent districts carried by Obama and thus have a very good reason to boast about working with Democrats.

Nine of the 10 most bipartisan House members come from “unsafe” districts, meaning that their party’s presidential nominee got less than 60 percent of the vote (see list below). The exception is Democrat Henry Cuellar of Texas, but he’s in an overwhelmingly Republican state and could face an electorate hostile to his own party after redistricting (or if he ever runs statewide).

The Lugar list would be more valuable if it took into account the political imperatives for each member and let us know who in Congress is more bipartisan than he or she needs to be. By that measure, the winner might be Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who ranks fourth on the bipartisan list despite representing a state that is quite safe for the GOP, followed by ninth-place Jerry Moran of Kansas, another Republican in a reliably red state. The least bipartisan pair might be Republican Ron Johnson and Democrat Tammy Baldwin, both of Wisconsin. Both are in the bottom 25 for bipartisanship despite representing a closely divided state—a sign of just how polarized and intractable the Wisconsin electorate is.

Lugar is probably too diplomatic to put it this way, but the best way to make Congress more bipartisan is to get more members representing states and districts that they have no business representing. That means more Republicans in states like Massachusetts and more Democrats in states like Nebraska. And that means nominating people who break from party orthodoxy enough to get elected in unfriendly territory. But with campaign financing increasingly dependent on big national donors who demand ideologically consistent candidates, we’re not likely to see a surge in bipartisanship any time soon.

Top 10 House members on Lugar Center’s bipartisan list

(with presidential results for their districts)*

1. Chris Gibson (R-New York). 2012 winner: Obama 52%.

2. Pete King (R-New York). 2012 winner: Obama 52%.

3. Michael Grimm (R-New York). 2012 winner: Obama 52%.

4. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida). 2012 winner: Obama 53%.

5. Richard Hanna (R-New York). 2012 winner: Romney 49%.

6. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania). 2012 winner: Romney 49%.

7. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas). 2012 winner: Obama 60%.

8. Jon Runyan (R-New Jersey). 2012 winner: Obama 52%.

9. Jim Matheson (D-Utah). 2012 winner: Romney 67%.

10. Kurt Schrader (D-Oregon). 2012 winner: Obama 51%.

*District results calculated by the Daily Kos.

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