Here’s Why Congress Isn’t Like the Rest of America

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The new session for 114th Congress started Tuesday with the Republicans in control of both houses. What better time to take a look at how well Congress actually represents Americans?

Congressmen and women differ quite a bit in ideological and economic make up than average Americans, but gender and race are other obvious factors to consider. The Economist notes that Congress members are 1.6 times as likely to be male than other Americans and more likely to be white. They are also older than their constituents, as 25% of Congress is over 65, while only 14% of Americans are.

The recent Republican takeover may make it look like the country is getting more conservative, but the numbers don’t back that up. Indeed, conservatives outnumber moderates and liberals in the U.S. population. Gallup recorded conservatives as making up 38% of the country, compared to 24% being democrats, but this is the smallest gap in Gallup’s trends in over 20 years. The percentage of Americans identifying as liberal rose a percentage point for the third year in a row last year, while those identifying as conservative or moderate (34%) remained unchanged from the year before.

But the biggest difference between Congressional makeup and the demographics of the U.S. is religion.

Faith a requirement for Congress?

According to data from the Pew Research Center, Protestants and Catholics continue to make up a greater percentage of Congress than of Americans. In fact, 92% of Congress members identify as Christian, up from 90% in the 113th Congress. Of this 92%, about 57% are Protestant and 31% are Catholic. Comparatively, using data from 2013, Pew says that 49% of American adults are Protestant, and 22% are Catholic.

Faith is such a common denominator in Congress that it took leaving office for former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) to admit he was an atheist — and Frank came out as the first openly gay member of Congress in 1987. According to Pew Research Center, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) is the only member of Congress who identifies as religiously unaffiliated — though she doesn’t say she’s nonbeliever — while about 20% of Americans are religiously unaffiliated.

Unsurprisingly, Democrats are slightly more diverse in faith than Republicans, as 44% are Protestant, 35% are Catholic, 12% are Jewish, 1% are Mormon, 1% are Buddhist, 1% are Muslim, one is Hindu, and one is religiously unaffiliated.

Congress isn’t science-minded

Another change made in the recent midterms was the retirement of Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), an astrophysicist. Now, Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) and Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) are the only members who hold doctorates in the natural and hard sciences out of the 535 senators and representatives in the 114th Congress, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The change is more disheartening for scientific associations trying to hold onto or gain more funding for much-needed research. “What we are sorely missing in the Congress today are those who are science-minded,” Mary Woolley, president of Research! America, said to The Wall Street Journal. “We are skating on thin ice.”

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