Religious diversity increases with new Congress

The 116th Congress includes a record breaking, trend setting group of individuals. In this session of Congress, 131 women now serve, which is more than any other Congress in U.S. history. Additionally, two Muslim women, two Native American women and an agnostic woman are serving, and more individuals in Congress identify as unsure of their religious affiliation than ever before. Also, four more Jewish people reside in the 116th Congress than in the 115th Congress, as well as one Unitarian Universalist.

According to PEW Research, 70 percent of Americans still identify as Christian. Evangelical Protestants make up over 25 percent of religious affiliation in the U.S., while Catholics and those without religious affiliation are both at a little over 22 percent.

The 116th Congress aligns somewhat with the overall statistics on religious affiliation in the U.S., with many still identifying as Christian, though Christians and Catholics are still overrepresented in their proportion in the general public. “There has been a 3-percentage-point decline in the share of members of Congress who identify as Christian – in the 115th Congress, 91 percent of members were Christian, while in the 116th, 88 percent are Christian,” according to PEW Research.

With the burst of religious diversity and difference of thought, some have questioned whether the country is swaying too far from its roots and whether Christianity will survive during a polarized time where white Evangelicalism is often under attack.

Brooke Kramer, a junior intercultural studies major, said she thinks, “Freedom of religious expression is one of the most important parts of our American founding. It is what has allowed religion to flourish in our society and is something to be celebrated. The diverse nature of the 116th Congress is representative of the religious diversity in the general population. Representation in our government bodies is a good thing.”

Senior political science major Lauren Marsh said she thinks a variety of religious representation in Congress is important and that “When people fear religious diversity, or really any type of diversity, it only creates walls between people. Something we definitely don’t need more of. While I am personally a Christian and appreciate that my congressman back home identifies as a Christian, I’m not going to try to control how people in a different district want to be represented. That’s their prerogative.”

Kramer also said that she is glad to see so many different ethnicities and religions represented because “Representation is important in Congress because it creates a space for minority populations to be heard in our government. Whether that population is a minority in their religious affiliation, gender, race, sexual orientation, it’s important that all American voices be represented proportionally when making laws to govern our country with.”

However, Daniel Cox, research director at the Public Religion Research Institute, said that some concerns Christians have regarding the religious diversity in leadership are valid because “Americans who report greater religious diversity in their social networks demonstrate much less regular religious involvement. A new analysis based on a PRRI study of Americans’ social networks found that Americans who report greater religious diversity among their close friends and family are less likely to engage in religious activities.” Additionally, Cox said, “Americans with more religiously diverse social networks demonstrate lower rates of religious participation and are less apt to say religion is important in their lives than other Americans.”

Kramer said she hopes JBU students and Christians in general will respond to the religious diversity in their leaders with hope instead of fear. “I hope Christians will respond with zeal for the gospel. I hope we will be unapologetic in our faith, and outspoken about where our convictions come from. I hope we have the humility to learn from those of a different religious heritage. I hope we recognize that God is bigger than our broken institutions, and that He is working through them and us still,” Kramer said. “I hope we realize that we don’t have to agree on everything to accomplish good things. I hope that we love one another well regardless of our various religious beliefs. I hope that we pursue proximate justice, though we realize that ultimate restoration won’t come until our Savior does. I hope we hold on to Jesus tightly, and all else loosely.”

Marsh also said she wants JBU students and the younger generation in general to respond in love and not hate. “I’m hopeful that this growing religious diversity helps to create conversation between those of different religions. Building relationships is cooler than building walls between people. I definitely anticipate backlash. I’ve actually already seen backlash. I personally know a few people who have already taken to Facebook to voice their disdain for a few Congressmembers who identify as Muslim, saying that they’re destroying America as we know it.”

Marsh continued, “That doesn’t sound like love to me. Focusing on turning people to Christ rather than trying to thump people over the head with our beliefs because that usually just pushes people away. I hope that Christians, in general, will be willing to walk with people who may believe different things and be able to develop relationships rather than try to build more walls and push everyone further apart and further away from Christ.”

Cox, however, argues that, especially in light of Generation Z’s dramatic decline in church attendance, religious diversity may put them even further at risk. “Organized religion has never been in jeopardy of dying out due to a single traumatic event. Instead, it is a cumulative series of unanswered challenges that pose the greatest risk. Religious diversity might not represent a dramatic threat to religion, but it may represent another small hole in an already sinking ship.”