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The new Congress sworn in today is a bit less religious and the outgoing Congress, but the members may not want to admit it. A poll by the Pew Research Center finds the number of self-identified Christians in Congress has dropped slightly. The number of members who refused to divulge their faith identity, meanwhile, is up sharply. More from NPR's Tom Gjelten.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: For the last 20 years, the Pew Research Center and CQ Roll Call have asked members of a new Congress about their religious affiliation. The results this year reflect broader demographic and cultural changes in the country but also the abiding importance of religion in American politics. What's especially notable this year is how few members say they have no religious affiliation. Among U.S. adults as a whole, nearly 1 in 4 say that, but this year's poll found just one member, Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, reporting no affiliation. Political scientist John Green at the University of Akron says some members may think it's bad politically to say they're not churchgoers.
JOHN GREEN: Some of this, I think, is just that politicians change more slowly than the public and don't want to court potential trouble with voters by admitting that they don't have any kind of religious affiliation.
GJELTEN: In other surveys, a majority of U.S. voters have said they'd be less likely to vote for a candidate who doesn't believe in God, so politicians may not want to make any such announcement. It's not necessarily that they're more faithful than the general public. In the latest survey, 18 members simply refuse to answer the question about their religious identity. On the other hand, it's also possible that members of Congress really are more religious than other Americans. John Green, who is also a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, notes that politicians tend to be especially active in community institutions.
GREEN: They're much more likely to go onto the rotary club or members of a charity or a professional association. And in most places in the United States, religious institutions are part of the local community infrastructure.
GJELTEN: The candidates most likely to win elections are the ones who network in their communities, Green says, and churches are a place where they can do that. One other notable finding from this poll - the new Congress is a bit more diverse than the old one, with 34 Jews, three Muslims, three Hindus, two Buddhists and two identifying as Unitarian Universalists. Of those non-Christian members, all but two are Democrats. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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