Where Are the Atheists in Congress?

by Jamelle Bouie


Even with a new Republican majority, the religious makeup of the 112th Congress is virtually identical to that of its predecessor, according to a recent Pew analysis. Catholics are still the largest single Christian denomination—at 29.2 percent of all members—followed by Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians. Mormons have 15 members in Congress, or 2.8 percent of the total, and as far as other religious traditions are concerned, Judaism dominates with 39 members or 7.3 percent of the total. Rounding out the non-Christians are Buddhists and Muslims, with a combined 5 members.

Noticeably absent from the congressional religious landscape? Nonbelievers:

Perhaps the greatest disparity between the religious makeup of Congress and the people it represents, however, is in the percentage of the unaffiliated - those who describe their religion as atheist, agnostic or "nothing in particular." According to information gathered by CQ Roll Call and the Pew Forum, no members of Congress say they are unaffiliated. By contrast, about one-sixth of U.S. adults (16%) are not affiliated with any particular faith. Only six members of the 112th Congress (about 1%) do not specify a religious affiliation, which is similar to the percentage of the public that says they don't know or refuses to specify their faith.

In all but thirteen states—in the West and Northeast—the "unaffiliated" are no more (and mostly less) than 20 percent of the population. What's more, a large majority of Americans—61 percent, including 15 percent of self-identified atheists and agnostics—say that it is important for members of Congress to have strong religious beliefs. If this preference is even moderately intense, the skeptic who wants to be a senator will have an incredibly difficult time finding an electorate to fit her minority beliefs, even in states with a higher-than-average population of "unaffiliated" people.

For an "unaffiliated" House candidate, the landscape is a little less harsh. Since nonbelievers tend to live in urban areas, it's conceivable that an openly atheist candidate could find a large enough base to support a primary or general election run against more religious competitors. Even still, given the relatively small number of unaffiliated, this isn't very likely.

The bright side is that partisanship would carry a lot of water for an open atheist or agnostic who made it through the primary. In a strongly Democratic or Republican area, the religious affiliation of the majority candidate doesn't really matter in a general election. The bigger obstacle would be the primary. This is probably less true in a statewide election, and not true at all in a presidential election. Particularly in states where the parties are evenly matched, the lack of religious belief could be enough to lose an election. And since party activists would know this, winning a primary—as a nonbeliever—would be much more difficult.

Is this a form of the "closet," as Andrew Sullivan describes? Perhaps. Non-belief is definitely an obstacle for an aspiring politician, and there really isn't any benefit in "coming out" as an atheist or agnostic. The United States is still too religious for that to be viable in anywhere but the most liberal enclaves, where non-belief is acceptable. Yes, the population of "unaffiliated" people is growing, but the strong cultural legacy of religious belief might keep that from translating into greater openness for less religious candidates. But we'll see.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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