Why do some religious affiliations produce more political leaders?

William Lawrence, dean of SMU's Perkins School of Theology, and Political Science Professor Matthew Wilson talk about why some denominations produce more political leaders.

By William McKenzie
Editorial Columnist

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which does superb work analyzing religious trends, looked at the religious affiliation of the new Congress that was sworn in on January 5th. Among other findings, the report discovered that "the 112th Congress, like the U.S. public, is majority Protestant and about a quarter Catholic. Baptists and Methodists are the largest Protestant denominations in the new Congress, just as they are in the country as a whole." . . .

With that as the setup, here's the question for this week:

Why do some religious affiliations seem to produce a greater political involvement than others?

Read on for our panel's answers.

Dean, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

Some religious traditions openly and actively engage in public witness because it is consistent with their theological traditions, while others shrink from public advocacy or engagement precisely for the same reason -- it is essential to their theological perspective that they avoid such activities.

For example, although I do not know whether there has ever been a member of the Amish community in Congress, it is clear that the religious perspective of the Amish would be to avoid any entanglements with political activism or the pursuit of public office. They occupy a distinctive and notable place in the religious landscape of America, without a visible profile in government service, because of their theology.

On the other hand, Methodists have a theology that specifically embraces and engages public advocacy as well as public service. The Methodists have historically established schools, hospitals, and other socially benevolent institutions not for their own adherents but for the society at large. Methodists have taken official positions in support of labor unions, and in support of health care as a right, for example.

A separate but significant aspect of the degree to which religious groups are under-represented or over-represented within the halls of Congress has to do with the capacity of some candidate to deliver a constituency. Roman Catholics proved in the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 that the constituency would support their own fellow churchman. Mormons, at least in the regions where their numbers amount to a sizable portion of the electorate, are a deliverable and decisive constituency at the polls.

A member of the United Church of Christ, on the other hand, is probably a liberally minded individual whose denomination is quite decentralized and relatively small. So a UCC member likely could not deliver a constituency in an election.

Associate Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University

The Pew Forum findings are notable, but not really surprising. Members of Congress are, generally speaking, drawn from an elite group in American society. They tend overwhelmingly to be affluent and well educated, with about 98% having college degrees and a very large portion having some sort of post-graduate education (often a law degree). Just as Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Jews are over-represented among this social elite, so too are they over-represented in the halls of Congress.

Catholics are a much larger and more socio-demographically diverse population, but they, too, clearly provide an ample pool of elites from which to draw -- witness the Catholic majority on the United States Supreme Court. Evangelicals (including Baptists), by contrast, are underrepresented in the social and educational circles from which members of Congress are typically drawn, and thus end up underrepresented in the legislature itself.

The more interesting question comes with regard to the unaffiliated. Here, I believe, a couple of things are going on.

First, a disproportionate number of the religiously unaffiliated among American adults are people under 30, almost none of whom are in Congress (indeed, people under 25 are constitutionally barred from the House, and those under 30 are barred from the Senate). Since the vast majority of members of Congress are over 40, it is probably not the case that a similar age cohort in the population at large would reflect a 16% rate of unaffiliation.

More significantly, however, the apparent discrepancy reflects a certain cynicism on the part of members of Congress. Many of those who profess affiliation with a particular religious tradition, whether Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish, are VERY nominal adherents of the faith in question -- and their behavior, both personally and legislatively, often reflects this.

For a person in public life, an admission of atheism or agnosticism could bring uncomfortable questions, so those seeking office will typically adopt some denominational label out of convenience, even if they never darken a church door (or, like the "Episcopalian" Howard Dean, think that the Book of Job is in the New Testament). The reality, though, is that in terms of actual religious commitment and observance, Congress as a whole is more secular than the American public, for a variety of reasons. This undoubtedly has consequences for public policy. Those, however, would be the subject for another response.

Read the full blog.

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