January 4, 2007
The Spirituality of Congress
— James L. Evans
We may enjoy some level of separation of church and state in this country, but there hardly exists anywhere a separation of faith from public office. There is spiritual vitality in virtually every branch of government; from President Bush's Methodism all the way to the disciplined Catholicism of Justices Alito, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Roberts, faith and government are linked arm in arm.
This is nowhere more evident than with the 110th Congress, which convenes today. According to a story distributed by Newhouse News Service, this Congress will be one of the most religiously diverse bodies we have ever had.
For instance, for the first time in our history, Congress will include among its ranks a Muslim. Keith Ellison, a newly elected Representative from Minnesota, converted from Catholicism to Islam when he was nineteen years old. Throughout his campaign, his religion, as most readers will recall, was a source of contention that culminated when he announced that he would take his oath of office on the Qur'an rather than the Bible.
The new Congress will also feature two Buddhists: Hank Johnson from Georgia, and Mazie Hirono from Hawaii. And for the first time in our history, Jews will outnumber Episcopalians -- not that either of them can boast overwhelming numbers. Overall among the Jews there are thirty Representatives and thirteen Senators. Compare this to the number of Episcopalians, who have twenty-seven House seats and ten Senators. And with Mitt Romney, Governor of Massachusetts, considering a run for the presidency, it is also interesting to note that ten Representatives and five Senators share his Mormon faith. In fact, Harry Reid of Nevada, the new Democratic majority leader in the Senate, is a Mormon.
The largest religious group represented in the new Congress is Roman Catholic. Catholics will have 129 Representatives and twenty-five Senators. The next largest group is Baptists, with fifty-nine Representatives and seven Senators. Coming in third are Methodists, with forty-eight Representatives and thirteen Senators.
It is also revealing to note who is not represented in the new Congress. No one from the Church of God is in the House, though the Senate includes a member of that group. There are also no Congregationalists in the House, but there is one Senator from that group as well. The inverse is true for Quakers -- one in the House, but none in the Senate.
Meanwhile, there are six House members who describe themselves as unaffiliated. Of course, given the evangelistic proclivities of Baptists and Methodists, this could change in the course of their term.
The big question is: What does all this mean? Well, for one thing, our new religiously diverse Congress seems to be "awash in a sea of faith," to borrow an expression from the title of Yale historian Jon Butler's award-winning history of early American religion. True now as then, Christianity may dominate the religious landscape, but it is far from alone in representing faith journeys in America.
Our religiously diverse Congress also serves to remind us of the power of religious freedom. This freedom is established in the First Amendment of our Constitution. Because Congress must never show partiality to any one faith, nor hinder anyone's free exercise of faith, spirituality has blossomed in the rich soil of American freedom.
Of course, it may be a cause of concern to some that such diverse forms of spirituality have taken root in our culture, for many of these expressions of faith do not follow traditional lines of Christian belief. But as we find with the 110th Congress, from freedom emerges diversity. You can never have one without the other.
Jonathan Tilove's article "New Congress brings with it religious firsts" (Newhouse News Service, December 8, 2006), can be accessed at: http://www.newhousenews.com/archive/tilove120806.html.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church. He can be reached through his website: www.jimevanscolumn.com.
The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "From Artaxerxes to Abu Ghraib: On Religion and the Pornography of Imperial Violence" by Bruce Lincoln. To read this article, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/.
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