Apr 23, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Our lawmakers are more religious than we are

Share of U.S. adults and Congress members who identify with select religions
Data: Pew Research/American Values Atlas: Public Religion Research Institute; Chart: Axios Visuals

Members of Congress are more Christian — and more religious — than the American public by wide margins, according to an analysis of data reviewed by Axios.

Why it matters: The discrepancy — a trend also present in state legislatures — provides a window into why policies and debates on abortion, LGBTQ rights and other issues often don't reflect what Americans want.

  • It also shows how the nation's two-party system, with its partisan primaries, favors candidates who openly profess a faith — even as the number of people unaffiliated with a religion is growing.

By the numbers: About 90% of those in Congress say they practice some form of Christianity, from Catholicism to conservative evangelicalism to progressive Unitarianism, a survey by Pew Research Center and Axios found.

  • But the latest survey by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute's American Values Atlas found that only 64% of Americans identify as Christian — and the percentage has been dropping.
  • Less than 4% of Congress members say they're unaffiliated with religion or don't know. PRRI's survey says nearly 27% of the general public is unaffiliated.

Zoom in: In today's politics, the success of conservative and evangelical Christian Republicans in pushing their agenda has created large gaps between lawmakers' priorities vs. public sentiment.

  • Since the Supreme Court's decision last year to overturn the constitutional right to abortion, for example, Republicans and some conservative Democrats in Congress have blocked efforts to codify abortion rights.
  • As a result, Republican-led state legislatures have passed waves of restrictions on abortion at a time when roughly six in 10 U.S. adults believe abortion should be legal in "all or most cases," according to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey.
  • There's been a backlash, though: Some Republican leaders cite abortion as a big reason the party has lost several elections in recent months.

Conservative Christians and evangelicals also have led a movement to restrict LGBTQ rights at a time when most Americans support gay rights and same-sex marriage.

  • This year, conservatives in Washington and in several states have focused on restricting the rights of transgender people — particularly trans girls and women who are athletes.
  • On Thursday, the U.S. House followed several state legislatures in passing a bill that would bar trans girls and women from competing in sports designated for women.
  • Polls indicate Americans support protecting trans people from discrimination, but that they're uneasy about allowing trans athletes to compete in women's sports.
  • The House bill has no chance of passing the Democrat-led Senate or being signed by President Biden.

What they're saying: "We are at a place in the country right now, where in many states the country has shifted, but the composition of our elected officials has certainly not kept up," said Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI.

  • In Texas, where white evangelicals dominate the Legislature, only 15% of the state's residents identify as white evangelicals, while 20% of all residents are religiously unaffiliated, Jones said.
  • Such differences there and nationwide have created discrepancies between elected officials and the general public on climate change, book bans, race relations and trans rights, he said.

Yes, but: There's a different type of religious gap between some Democrats and the general public.

  • Black and Latino members of Congress, mostly Democrats, almost all identify as Christians — even as the number of religiously unaffiliated Black and Latino Americans continues to rise.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found that Latinos with no religious affiliation went from 15% in 2009 to 23% in 2019.

Between the lines: There's an inherent bias in the political system toward religious elected officials, Azhar Majeed, director of government affairs for the Center for Inquiry, tells Axios.

  • "It's an unpopular position to take to declare oneself to be nonreligious or nonbeliever or humanist, certainly to declare oneself an atheist or an agnostic."
  • This remains the case even as the country changes demographically, Majeed said.

Running for office as a person of color who openly shuns religion hasn't been tested in many states, New Mexico Democratic political consultant Sisto Abeyta said.

  • "It's too early to take that chance and say, 'I want to give you hope' while also saying, 'I don't believe in God.' "
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