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 heart-warming 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 no where more evident than with the incoming Congress. 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 19 years old. As you would imagine, his religion was a source of contention throughout his campaign.
The new Congress will also feature two Buddhists—Hank Johnson from Georgia, and Mazie Hirono from Hawaii.
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 30 representatives and 13 senators. Compare Episcopalians who have 27 House seats and 10 senators.
With Mitt Romney, governor of Massachusetts, considering a run for the presidency, it is interesting to note that 10 representatives and 5 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 25 senators. The next largest group is Baptists with 59 representatives and seven senators. Coming in third are Methodists with 48 representatives and 13 senators.
It is also interesting to note who is not represented in the new Congress. No one from the Church of God is in the House, but there is one senator from that group. There are also no Congregationalists in the House, but there is one senator from that group as well. The opposite is true for Quakers—one in the House, but none in the Senate.
Interestingly, there are six House members who describe themselves as unaffiliated. Of course, given the evangelistic proclivities of Baptists and Methodists, that 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.” This expression comes 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 not 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 so many diverse forms of spirituality have taken root in our culture, many of which do not follow traditional lines of Christian belief. But as we shall soon see with this incoming Congress, out of freedom comes diversity. You can never have one without the other.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.