America's constitution is explicit: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office.” Yet Americans expect piety from their politicians. During the presidential election of 1800, William Linn, the first chaplain of the House of Representatives, argued that Thomas Jefferson was unqualified for office because of his “rejection of the Christian Religion”. Jefferson, a staunch believer in the separation of church and state, rejected most orthodox teachings and, later in life, assembled his own Bible expunged of miracles and other supernatural “perversions”. The election of such a man, Linn warned, would “destroy religion, introduce immorality and loosen all the bonds of society”. (It did not.)
America’s religious balance has changed since then. Today about 65% of Americans identify as Christian, down from 90% 50 years ago. The religiously unaffiliated—including atheists, agnostics and those without allegiance to a particular creed—are the fastest-growing group, accounting for about a quarter of the population. American politics does not reflect these changes, though. Except for Jefferson and perhaps Abraham Lincoln, all presidents have belonged to a church. The new president, Joe Biden, is Catholic, and nearly nine in ten lawmakers in Congress say they are Christian (see chart). Only two, Kyrsten Sinema, a senator from Arizona, and Jared Huffman, a congressman from California, claim no religious affiliation, identifying as “unaffiliated” and “humanist”, respectively.
Demographics partly explains the discrepancy. Members of Congress are on average older than most Americans and belong to generations, such as the baby-boomers, that are more likely to identify as Christian. The unaffiliated tend to be younger—nearly half of them are millennials, who are under-represented in Congress.
But even taking age into account, Christians are still over-represented on the Hill. There are other factors at play. In states such as Alabama, where 86% of adults identify as Christian, professing godliness is politically advantageous. And although suspicion of those without religious affiliation has abated since Linn’s day, proclaiming yourself as such is still a political risk, says Ben Gaskins, a researcher at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, who has studied how candidates project religiousness to establish trust with voters. “A lot of people still to this day believe that you can’t truly be a good, moral person without a belief in God,” says Mr Gaskins. A Pew Research Centre poll in 2014 found that no attribute—including inexperience, marital infidelity or age—made a voter less likely to support a presidential candidate than atheism. Donald Trump—a thrice-married political novice who once said he did not need to ask forgiveness from God—comfortably won the Christian vote in 2016. This suggests that claiming a religious identity, however tenuous, can cover a multitude of sins.
John Green, an adviser to Pew, says lawmakers often emerge from faith communities because “religious people of all kinds tend to be much more engaged in social groups…which is the stuff that politics is made out of.” He also notes that certain communities have historically been flush with cash, giving them an edge in political representation. One example is Episcopalians, who have the highest household incomes among Christians. Episcopalians make up roughly 1% of Americans, yet they occupy 5% of seats in Congress and have sent 11 presidents to the White House, more than any other denomination.
Though data on the religious habits of Christian lawmakers—such as how often they attend church, pray or read scripture—are not available, it is known that some attend weekly Bible studies. A few are ordained ministers: Raphael Warnock, a new Democratic senator from Georgia, is the pastor at the church in Atlanta where Martin Luther King senior and junior preached. Yet lawmakers are increasingly identifying simply as Protestant, perhaps to avoid being associated with some denominations’ contentious stances on issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage. Some of the vagueness is deliberate, says Mr Green. “They want to give people an answer that will suffice.”
Changes in America’s religious make-up are being reflected in the halls of power. In the past decade and a half, Americans have sent their first Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist representatives to the Hill. In 2018 Mr Huffman co-founded the Congressional Freethought Caucus, a group that “protects the secular character” of American democracy and opposes discrimination against the religiously unaffiliated. It counts both believers and non-believers among its members. The unaffiliated are still under-represented in Congress, but they no longer face the kinds of accusations made by William Linn.
This article is from our Graphic detail section.