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The Suburbanite
  • Congressional reps’ religions becoming more diverse

  • A new report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that while the vast majority of representatives are Protestants, Congress is — slowly — becoming as religiously diverse as the nation it serves.

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  • In 2006, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota made American history when he became the first Muslim to be elected to Congress.
    Last week, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii became the first Hindu to serve in Congress, a seat recently held by the body’s first Buddhist.
    A new report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that while the vast majority of representatives are Protestants, Congress is — slowly — becoming as religiously diverse as the nation it serves.
    “Voters appear to be less concerned about a candidate’s religious affiliation than they once were, but they are still concerned with a candidates religiosity — sometimes in a positive way and sometimes in a negative way,” said John C. Green, executive director of the University of Akron’s Raymond C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.
    “On the one hand, some divisions that were once very important, like the differences between Protestants and Catholics, have become less so because those religious communities have become more diverse. But on the other hand, new issues have arisen that engage religion in a different way than before, creating a new kind of diversity based on religiosity, not affiliation.”
    CATHOLICS RISE
    Not so long ago, Catholics were viewed with suspicion in America, to the point where presidential candidate John F. Kennedy had to make a landmark speech to a gathering of Baptist clergy in Houston, Texas, in 1960. Today, Catholics are the single-largest religious denomination in Congress, among them, Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Wadsworth, whose district encompasses parts of Stark County.
    “My faith is an important part of all my decisions,” said Renacci, a lifelong Catholic.
    “It took a long time for Catholics to enter the mainstream of American politics, and the election of JFK in 1960 had a big impact on that process,” Green said. “Other factors included increased contact between Catholics and Protestants outside of politics, and also new issues like abortion that divided both communities, and allowed for alliances for and against abortion across religious lines.”
    VALUES VOTERS
     Rencacci noted that his colleagues in Congress appear to serious about their faith.The 1980s saw the emergence of “values voters,” socially-conservative evangelical Protestants who took their political cues from such organizations as the Moral Majority and Focus on the Family. Leaders of these groups urged evangelicals to become more active on behalf of candidates who shared their views.
    One such politician was the Rev. Sam Rohrer, a former Pennsylvania state legislator who ran for governor and founder of the Pennsylvania Pastors’ Network.
    Rohrer contends that many in Congress aren’t applying their religious beliefs to their governance.
    “From a faith perspective, our founders made it very clear that our Constitution and our republic is based on biblical principles that would require people in office who believe the principle of absolute truth, to stand before God and give an account,” he said.
    Page 2 of 3 - He further argues that many in Congress who believe in the Bible, have compartmentalized their faith, to America’s detriment.
    “When that happens, you have nothing but personal opinion to guide you,” he said.
    Rohrer said that if the challenges facing America were viewed by Congress from a standpoint of cause and solution and from a biblical perspective, “you would not have the rancor and the division.”
    HIGHER OBLIGATION
    Green said he can foresee a day when an vowed atheist might be elected to Congress — but not any time soon.
     “In some parts of the country that could happen and actually has,” he said. “But in most parts of the country — and for president — most people are skeptical of voting for an atheist.”
    Green said people shouldn’t be  surprised that Congress has become so contentious, given that voters are behaving much in the same manner.
    “Much of the infighting is political, but the politics is rooted in serious disagreements in the public,” Green said. “And religion is one part of those disagreements.”
    “That often is true,” Rohrer said. “However, there’s no justification. Those in office have a higher obligation.”
    “I do not believe there is outright rancor in Congress,” Renacci said. “There is certainly disagreement on what direction the country should be taking and not enough resolution, but not rancor.”
     
     
    Religious  “Firsts” in Congress
    • Hawaii Democrat Tulsi Gabbard is the first Hindu in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. An Iraq War veteran, Gabbard served on the Honolulu City Council and in the Hawaii state legislature, and represents the state’s 2nd congressional district. She takes over the seat held in the 112th Congress by Rep. Mazie K. Hirono, a Democrat who became the first Buddhist elected to the Senate.
    • In 2006, Hirono and Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., became the first Buddhists to be elected to the House. Four years later, they were joined by a third Buddhist, Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii. Johnson and Hanabusa were re-elected to serve in the 113th Congress.
    • Rep. Andre Carson, D-Ind., became the second Muslim in Congress when he won a special election in 2008.
    • The first Jewish member joined Congress in 1845, when Lewis Charles Levin of the American Party represented Pennsylvania in the House.
    • The first Mormon in Congress, John Milton Bernhisel, began serving in 1851, after Utah was officially recognized as a territory.
    • California Democrat Dalip Singh Saund, the first and only Sikh to serve in Congress, served three terms starting in 1957.
    • Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., a Unitarian who joined Congress in 1973, became the first member of Congress to publicly declare, in 2007, that he does not believe in a Supreme Being. He lost his re-election bid in 2012.
    Page 3 of 3 - Source: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life