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Presbyterian representation drops slightly in 115th US Congress

Evangelical, Catholic and other faith groups gain members

by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE – A recently released report by the Pew Research Center for Religion & Public Life shows the composition of the 115th U.S. Congress is losing members from historically mainline Protestant groups in favor of modest gains by evangelicals, Catholics and representatives from other faith traditions.

While the difference is small, especially for Presbyterians who lost only one member as compared to the 114th Congress—from 36 to 35 members—the overall percentage of mainline Protestant representation dropped from 28.7 to 27 percent in the new Congress. Baptists, the largest individual Protestant group, lost seven members, reducing its representation from 14.8 to 13.5 percent.

An overwhelming majority (90.7 percent) of representatives still identify as Christian, down just 1.1 percent from the previous Congress particularly due to gains by non-denominational, “unspecified” Christian and Catholic members.

Non-Christian groups also made marginal gains with the addition of two Jewish, one Buddhist, two Hindu and one “Don’t know/refused” representative. No non-Christian group lost any representatives in the recent elections.

Historic data on the religious affiliation of Congress members is available starting with the 87th session that met in 1961-62. At the time, 95 percent of members were Christian, but since then the composition has changed greatly as the study authors note:

“Within Christianity, however, Congress has seen a major shift as the share of Protestants has declined, a trend mirrored in the overall decline of the U.S. Protestant population. Protestants made up fully three-quarters of the 87th Congress, compared with 56 percent of the current Congress. Meanwhile, Catholics, who made up 19 percent of the 87th Congress, now make up 31 percent of the body.”

Presbyterian Representation

Presbyterians hold 22 House (5.1 percent) and 13 Senate (13 percent) seats in the new congress. These percentages may seem disproportional, given that Presbyterians make up two percent of the total U.S. population.

The Rev. Dr. Charles “Chip” Hardwick, director of Theology, Formation and Evangelism for the PC(USA), believes there are a number of reasons for this above average representation.

“Presbyterians are known for their engagement with public life and the concerns of the world. For some faith groups it’s just the opposite,” he says. “Also, the structure of the U.S. government closely resembles the structure of Presbyterianism, so that’s familiar. Finally, John Calvin worked within government systems, so it’s in our DNA to see public service as one component of living faithfully.”

When it comes to party affiliation, there seems to be a disconnect between where most Presbyterians land and the current Congress. According to statistics from Dr. Perry Chang of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Research Services, on average, 38.5 percent of Presbyterians identify as Democrat, 30.3 percent as Republican, 18.8 Percent as Independent, and 11.7 as unaffiliated or other. Chang’s December 20 report, Talkin’ ’bout my generation, shows that among the oldest Presbyterians, 38 percent identified as Republican and 36 percent as Democrat. In younger groups, the percentages shift dramatically, with over 50 percent identifying as Democrat and below 20 percent identifying as Republican.

Results from the 2011 Presbyterian Panel survey showed slightly more Republicans among church members (43 percent) and ruling elders (42 percent.) Teaching elders and specialized ministers were much less likely to identify as Republican, reaching only 20 and 14 percent respectively. Those who identified as Democrat made up 28 percent of church members, 33 percent of ruling elders, 50 percent of teaching elders and 61 percent of specialized ministers. In the 2011 survey, roughly one quarter of panelists in each group choose the label Independent.

In light of these surveys, and a gradual shift toward more self-identified Democrats, party affiliation among Presbyterian representatives to Congress is skewed heavily Republican, accounting for 18 of 22 House members (81.8 percent) and 9 of 13 Senate members (69.2 percent.)

With the average age of the 115th Congress being 58, that puts the majority of its members in the “Baby Boomer” category. PC(USA) Baby Boomers identified as 30 percent Republican and 37 percent Democrat, with an even larger split between those who consider themselves conservative (25 percent) and liberal (40 percent.)

What accounts for this difference? Why is Republican Presbyterian representation in the House over twice, and nearly twice for Senate members, the average of similarly aged Presbyterians nationwide?

Chang offers one possible answer in that “more Americans identify themselves as ‘Presbyterian’ than are actual members of and/or participants in congregations affiliated with the PC(USA) and other Presbyterian denominations. It’s possible this is true of elected officials also.”

He goes on to say, “Of course, to the extent to which elected officials and others merely identify in which tradition they grew up—or even in which tradition their grandparents grew up—there may be a long lag before changes show up in identification.”

Another possibility is a lack of granularity in the data collected. Pew did not ask Congress members if they were part of any Presbyterian subgroup. The data does not indicate if these representatives are members of traditionally more conservative Presbyterian denominations such as the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (CPC), the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), or the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO.)

Regardless of this denominational segmentation, the Rev. Dr. Charles Wiley, associate director in the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship, says it isn’t surprising Presbyterians have served at the highest levels of government throughout U.S. history, especially given the long record and large representation of Presbyterians in Congress and its identity as a faith tradition engaged in public life.

“From the colonial days onward, Presbyterians have recognized that order in church and society can make life better for all,” he says. “They have committed themselves to building enduring institutions as part of their Christian vocation.”


Perry Chang and Deborah Coe of PC(USA) Research Services provided statistical information and additional research for this article.

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