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The 2012 elections have not only brought in a new crop of freshman members to Congress, but also a new crop of religious faiths, including the first Buddhist senator, the first Hindu in either house, a drop in the number of Protestants and the first member of Congress ever to list her faith as “none.”
According to Pew Research Center statistics, 50 years ago, nearly three-quarters of Congress belonged to Protestant, Christian denominations.
Today, that number is down to 56 percent, fueled by a freshman class, of which fewer that half of the new members list their faith as Protestant (48.2 percent).
The biggest faith group gain has been among Catholics, who picked up seven seats among the 533 members of Congress, for a total of 163, raising their share to just over 30 percent of the two houses combined.
Faiths never before represented in Congress, however, have now found their way into the chambers.
For example, Hawaii Democrat Tulsi Gabbard is the first professing Hindu to serve in either house.
Curiously enough, Gabbard fills the seat opened by Democrat Mazie K. Hirono, who left the House, and upon her election in November, will become the first professing Buddhist ever to serve in the U.S. Senate.
Democrats, in fact, make up the vast majority of minority faiths in Congress.
In the new, 113th Congress, for example, 32 of the 33 Jewish lawmakers to serve will be Democrats; the three Buddhists (Hirono in the Senate and two others in the House) are Democrats; the two Muslims are Democrats; the only Hindu and only Unitarian Universalist are Democrats; and the 10 lawmakers who will not specify their religion are also Democrats.
Only among Protestants, Orthodox Christians (with a tally of 3 to 2) and Mormons (by a margin of 12 to 3) do Republicans hold the numerical advantage.
Then, there’s the case of incoming freshman Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who represents a portion of Maricopa County (of Sheriff Joe Arpaio fame) in Arizona. Sinema will become the first member of Congress to list her religious faith as “none.”
Described as a non-theist and presenting herself as openly bisexual, Sinema was raised by Mormon parents and graduated from Brigham Young University, but has said her politics came into conflict with her religious upbringing.
Sinema’s faith – or lack thereof – became a point of contention during the 2012 election, when her opponent’s campaign created a web advertisement that accused her of participating in “pagan rituals” during an anti-war protest and depicted her as a 1970s-style, liberal hippie.
The “psychedelic” advertisement can be seen below:
The “pagan” allegations came from an email posted on the Arizona Alliance for Peace & Justice website, purportedly from Sinema, in which she allegedly described a confrontation at a anti-war protest she was attending: “As my ‘protest buddy’ and I were singing and spiraling in the pagan’s circle only 5 rows back from the police line (which was over 25 rows thick), we noticed the police were putting on additional gear beneath their plastic face shields.”
Pew also noted that in the past 50 years, there have been some significant shifts in representation among varying Protestant faiths. For example, Methodists, who made up 18 percent of the 87th Congress, which was seated in 1961, now make up only 9 percent of the 113th Congress. Episcopalians and Congregationalists have seen similar declines, while Baptists and unspecified Protestants have seen small gains.
The figures reported for the 113th Congress reflect those being sworn in on Jan. 3, 2013, and exclude two recently vacated seats previously held by Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., a Baptist Democrat from Illinois, and Rep. Tim Scott, an unspecified Protestant Republican from South Carolina, who is counted among the senators after taking over for former Sen. Jim DeMint.