As it has become customary at the beginning of a new Congress, the Pew Research Center released its Faith on the Hill report. Our elected officials at the national level have been slow to catch up to the country’s secularizing trend. The report shows only one “religiously unaffiliated” elected official, Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema. While New York’s Ed Kilgore is too optimistic about the religious diverity in Congress, it represent a major step forward. In the U.S. Senate, that bastion of American conservatism, there is a “none.”
But the CQ Roll Call survey of members of Congress that informs Pew’s report undercounts the secularity of its respondents. In the case of California Rep. Jared Huffman, he’s been added to the “don’t know/refused” category. Though Pew acknowledges in the text that Huffman “identifies as a humanist.”
Then there are two cases that show even more complexity. One is a current member of the House, another is a former member. Current Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland) identifies as Jewish in the survey, but he also identifies as a humanist according to the Center for Freethought Equality. There’s also the case of former Rep. Pete Stark (D-California). Pew included some trends to show how faith on the Hill has changed over time. A few of those periods include the tenure of Stark who served for 40 years. Stark identified as a Unitarian during his whole career but he acknowledged late in his tenure that he was an atheist, something that is not uncommon among Unitarians. The Pew Landscape Survey of 2014 finds that nearly 1-in-5 Unitarians (and people belonging to other liberal faiths) do not beleive in God. Stark’s atheism is mentioned in a footnote in the report, but still means that people with nontheistic backgrounds are undercounted among elected officials by surveys that conflate religion with belief in the supernatural. These surveys measure belonging to a community, not necessarily what the people believe. The current way of reporting religion in Congress makes secular people even more invisible than they are in the national legislative body.