RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
When lawmakers gather at the Capitol today, the cameras at the back of the room will focus on the man in white. Pope Francis becomes the first pope to address a joint meeting of Congress. This morning, we'll turn our view away from the pope and toward his audience. He will see the assembled lawmakers, and he will speak to the country they represent, which are not exactly the same. Congress is more Christian than Americans in general and more Catholic. NPR's Tamara Keith has this report on why.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: First, the numbers. Whereas nearly a quarter of the U.S. population says they have no religious affiliation, it's less than 1 percent in Congress. Alan Cooperman is the director of religion research at the Pew Research Center, and he has the data on the religious affiliation of members of Congress. Here's what he found.
ALAN COOPERMAN: Congress is disproportionately religiously affiliated. That is, the share of members of Congress who say they have a religion is considerably higher than the share of all American adults.
KEITH: In the halls of Congress, the question of why this might be was greeted with puzzlement. Shelley Moore Capito and Richard Burr, senators from West Virginia and North Carolina, offered similar theories.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO: Maybe it's because we need the solid grounding and good guidance that we get from above.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RICHARD BURR: Maybe it has something to do with the magnitude of the issues we deal with up here. And people realize that you can't do that without a degree of reliance on spiritual need.
KEITH: Surveys show that the public overwhelmingly wants their presidents to have religion in their lives. So it makes sense that it would carry over to congressional elections, too. Senator Gary Peters from Michigan is Episcopalian.
GARY PETERS: My spirituality is important to me and gives me comfort in rough times.
KEITH: And he figures, at least for some voters, knowing that he has a religious grounding helps them trust him.
PETERS: They want to look you in the eye. They want to get a sense of what sort of man or woman that you are. I think it's that intangible quality, and if your spiritual soul is part of that, people want to see that. And that's ultimately how they're going to make decisions as to who they support.
KEITH: Another possible reason, members of Congress are often asked to state their religion. Chris Murphy, a senator from Connecticut, checks the box unspecified, other, Protestant.
CHRIS MURPHY: I grew up in a congregational church. I'm not a regular churchgoer these days, in part because of kids, in part because of a busy schedule.
KEITH: The Pew report found members of Congress are more religiously affiliated. But it doesn't say anything about whether they are actually more religious than the rest of us. The Senate's longtime chaplain, Barry Black, thinks they are, based, at least, on the popularity of his weekly interfaith prayer breakfasts.
BARRY BLACK: Now, I don't think you'd get a similar percentage from normal churchgoers if you were having an hour prayer breakfast each week during the workweek.
KEITH: Black cites the 119th Psalm. Before I was afflicted, I went astray. But now, I obey your word.
BLACK: So I think there is something about affliction - and trust me, going through the legislative process can be an experience of affliction - that that helps people to probably be more spiritual.
KEITH: What he seems to be saying is you'd be more religious, too, if you had to serve in Congress. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.