Hours before being sworn in, many senators and representatives of the 116th Congress gathered inside St. Peter’s Catholic Church, just steps from the U.S. Capitol, for a multi-faith, bipartisan prayer meeting Thursday morning. Patrick Conroy, S.J., the chaplain to the House of Representatives, offered an opening prayer, which was followed by a number of spiritual readings from new and returning members.
Representative Susan Wild, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, read from the Book of Genesis. Representatives Phil Roe, a Republican from Tennessee, and Collin Peterson, a Democrat from Minnesota, led the singing of “Here I Am, Lord.” There were readings from the Bhagavad-Gita, the Book of Psalms, the New Testament and Thomas Merton’s writings. Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, read an Islamic invocation. Members from both parties offered prayers and the 30-minute service concluded with the song “America the Beautiful.”
The service reflected a gradually rising religious diversity as Congress becomes a bit more representative of the U.S. population as a whole. But the institution still harkens back to a different time in the United States, with nearly nine in 10 members identifying as Christian.
The institution still harkens back to a different time in the United States, with nearly nine in 10 members identifying as Christian.
According to an analysis released on Jan. 3 by the Pew Research Center, about 88 percent of Congress identifies as Christian, compared with just 71 percent of all U.S. adults. Catholics now make up 30.5 percent of Congress; 21 percent of U.S. adults identify as Catholic.
Democrats, including newly elected Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, are more likely than Republicans to identify as Catholic. More than a third of congressional Democrats (35 percent) are Catholic, while just over a quarter of Republicans (26 percent) identify as Catholic. Compared with the two previous Congresses, which saw the number of Catholic Democrats and Republicans about equal, the new Congress sees a large gap, with 86 Catholic Democrats and 55 Catholic Republicans. But this change is mostly attributable to the Democrats gaining at least 40 seats in the House (with one race yet to be decided).
Catholics make up majorities of congressional delegations from six states—Alaska, Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont—and half of the delegations from Iowa, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Two Catholic Democratic women who lost Senate elections, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, were replaced by two Protestant Republican men, Josh Hawley and Kevin Cramer.
Of the 96 newly elected members of Congress, 78 are Christian, including 28 who are Catholic. Overall, there are 141 Catholics in the House, or 32 percent of the chamber; 22 of the 100 U.S. senators are Catholic.
Overall, there are 141 Catholics in the House, or 32 percent of the chamber; 22 of the 100 U.S. senators are Catholic.
The first two Muslim women elected to Congress were sworn in Tuesday, bringing the total of Muslim House members to three. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat from Michigan, and Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, join Andre Carson, a Democrat from Indiana. There are 34 Jews in the new Congress, along with two Buddhists, three Hindus and three Unitarian Universalists.
But religious diversity in the new Congress is mostly relegated to one party. Republican members of the Senate and House are 99.2 percent Christian and 0.8 percent Jewish. Congressional Democrats are also mostly Christian, at 78.3 percent, but all 29 members who are non-Christian and non-Jewish, or who did not volunteer a religious affiliation, are Democrats.
A notable discrepancy between the new Congress and the general population has to do with those who are not affiliated with a church. Just one new member, Senator Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, identifies as religiously unaffiliated. That makes just 0.2 percent of the new Congress part of the so-called nones, compared with 23 percent of the U.S. adult population.
But Pew notes that 18 members of the new Congress, or 3.4 percent, are classified as “don’t know/refused.” They are all Democrats. Additionally, 80 members of Congress, or 15 percent, identify as “Protestant” but do not identify with a specific denomination, compared to just 5 percent of U.S. adults. Of that group, 51 are Republicans.
Just one new member, Senator Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, identifies as religiously unaffiliated.
According to Pew, the percentage of Catholics in the last four congresses has remained stable, at around 31 percent. That is far higher than the 19 percent of Catholics who comprised the 87th Congress in 1961, just after the election of President John F. Kennedy. Six percent of Congress identify as Jewish, up from about 2 percent during the 1960s. The share of members who belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is down in the new Congress to 10 members, the lowest since 1979.
The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities reported on Jan. 3 that 10 percent of Congress—12 senators and 43 representatives—are alumni of a dozen Jesuit colleges and universities. Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., counts 28 alumni in the new Congress, with another half dozen each from Boston College and Fordham University.
As for priorities important to Catholic leaders, it remains unclear if the new Congress, in which Democrats control the House and Republicans the Senate, will be able to make any progress.
The previous Congress, with both chambers controlled by Republicans, was largely sympathetic to President Donald Trump’s agenda, U.S. Catholic bishops issued a number of statements opposed to Mr. Trump and the Republican leadership’s policy proposals in immigration, health care and taxes. They were supportive of some measures that they said were in harmony with the church’s views on life issues.
With Democrats now in charge of the House, it is possible that bishops and other church leaders will find themselves shifting gears in terms of advocacy. House Democrats may seek to protect access to abortion, which church leaders oppose. But they may find more common ground when it comes to economic and immigration issues.
Quincy Howard, O.P., a government relations staffer for the Catholic social-justice oriented advocacy group Network, told America that her group feels “hopeful” and that there are some “solid allies to work with” in the House. She said Network supports HR1, a bill Democrats plan to introduce that includes several political reforms, including publicly financed elections, voter rights and anti-corruption measures. Network, which sponsored a bus tour during the election calling out members who supported the Republican-backed tax overhaul, said it will also advocate for immigration reform, an increase in the federal minimum wage and additional reforms of the criminal justice system.
Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story stated, “House Democrats may seek to protect access to abortion, which many Catholic leaders oppose.” The phrase “many Catholic leaders” was imprecise; it was not meant to refer only to church leaders, or to imply that some church leaders do not follow the church’s teachings against abortion.