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Religious affiliations of Congress reflect statistics of America.

The 105th Congress, now getting down to business, may not look like America in terms of class, race or gender, but when it comes to religion, members are fairly representative of the nation, according to a new survey of congressional religious affiliations.

While religious affiliation is not an absolute indicator of political ideology, analysts say the survey confirms that the generally conservative political tone of the new Congress corresponds to a continuing growth in the number of theologically conservative representatives and a decline in the number of mainline Protestants, who tend to be more theologically liberal.

"Slowly but surely, the changing religious configuration in Congress represents the changing landscape of American religious experience," said Albert J. Menendez, the demographer who conducted the study.

"Religion is only one factor of many, but it's important not to lose sight of the fact that in the American context, religion has always translated into political action and political conviction," he told Religion News Service.

According to Menendez, Roman Catholics remain the largest single religious group in Congress, with 151 of the total 535 members. Catholics, also the largest religious group in the United States, have had the largest congressional presence since 1964.

Baptists, the nation's second largest religious group, have the second largest congressional presence as well, with 67 members.

Rounding out the top religious groups are United Methodists (59), Presbyterians (55), Episcopalians (42), Jews (35), unspecified Protestants (28), Lutherans (22), Mormons (14), and United Church of Christ (10) and "Christians" (10).

In addition, Menendez found six Easter Orthodox Christians, 30 members who belong to a variety of smaller religious organizations, and seven who claim no religious affiliation.

Overall, Menendez said, the numbers track relatively closely to trends in American religious life -- with some notable exceptions, such as the Jewish community, whose congressional presence is significantly higher than its roughly 2 percent proportion of the population.

Menendez, who has been conducting this study for 25 years, said one of the most interesting trends he has documented is a "complete nose dive" in the number of mainline denominations represented in Congress.

Episcopalians, for example, have now dropped to their lowest representation in 50 years. Today, there are only half as many Episcopalians in Congress (42) as there were in 1980 when Ronald Reagan first won the presidency. Similarly, United Methodists, members of the United Church of Christ and Unitarian Universalists are at their lowest numbers in 50 years.

James L. Guth, professor of political science at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., said this corresponds to the overall decline in membership of mainline denominations in America.
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Publication:Church & State
Date:Feb 1, 1997
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