Survey shows Congress is more religious than America

A new survey shows who believes what and how it differs from what Americans believe as a whole.

Survey shows Congress is more religious than America

Pope Francis addresses Congress in 2014.

JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images
  • The newest survey of congressional religious beliefs shows our representatives aren't quite like us.
  • Members of Congress are much more religious and more Christian than the general population.
  • The effects of this disconnect are debatable.

The Congress of the United States is much smaller than the national legislatures of other Western Democracies in proportional terms. Each member of The House of Representatives comes from a district of about 700,000 people, and each Senator can claim to speak for an entire state, the smallest of which contains nearly 600,000 people.

Because of the numbers involved, it is probably inevitable that the legislature's demographics are going to differ from that of the general population. For example, a higher percentage of them are dentists than you might expect looking at the general population.

The various rules and practicalities of office also produce some differences. The typical Senator is 62.9 years old, and the average Representative is 57.6. The median age for Americans is 38. People elected to federal office also tend to have more money than the people they represent.

A new report from Pew reveals that the religious affiliations in Congress also dramatically differ from those of the people they represent. Taken as part of a series of similar reports, it reveals certain trends in Congressional demographics that differ from that of the country as a whole.

The demographics of Congress and their constituents

A whopping 88 percent of Representatives and Senators are Christians. Breaking this down, 55 percent of them identify as some sort of Protestant, and another 30 percent are Catholic. Mormons make up around 2 percent of the legislature, with Orthodox Christians following at just above 1 percent. This puts them well behind the Jews, which 6 percent of the body identified as.

Behind them came the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Humanist, and Unaffiliated members. Each of these categories amounts to under one percent of Congress by themselves, for a collective total of 12 members.

Eighteen members refused to answer the survey; many of them also refused to answer two years ago—speculation as to why this is and what they actually believe continues elsewhere.

For comparison, only 65 percent of the general public identifies as a Christian. Beyond that, only 20 percent of the population is Catholic, and another 43 percent Protestant. People with no religious affiliation make up another 26 percent. Judaism is three times as common in Congress as it is elsewhere in the country, with only 2 percent of the population identifying as such.

Mormons and Orthodox Christians enjoy nearly propositional representation, as they make up 2 percent and just under 1 percent of the population nationally. The remaining represented religions are in a similar situation. They are under-represented but not nearly as much as the non-religious—Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus each make up about one percent of the general population. Unitarian Universalists are seated in Congress at the same rate as the aforementioned faiths but are just under one percent of the population.

Some trends emerge in this data. Since 1961, the year this survey was first sent out, the percentage of Christians has fallen, though by far less than the population overall. Like the rest of Protestant America, members of Congress are increasingly likely not to name a denomination, such as Lutheran or Baptist, but to instead identify with the more general term of Protestant.

It is also worth mentioning that there may be more to this topic than these questions can reveal.

Many Jewish people identify as such while also being agnostic or even atheistic. It is possible that the degree of actual belief among some of the members of Congress using the term varies dramatically. Likewise, the one "unaffiliated" member has stated before that they don't want to be bound by labels, further reducing the usefulness of a survey that tries to label everybody.

Why might this be?

In addition to the previously mentioned difficulties of having an entirely representative legislature, some religious groups are still more electable than others.

A recent Gallop poll demonstrates that only about 60 percent of Americans would vote for a qualified atheist and that only a few more would support a similarly capable Muslim. While these numbers have increased over time and differ greatly based on party affiliation, it is probable that many non-Christian potential candidates justify not running on the grounds of these numbers.

Before you point out that these are majorities, that is who is willing to vote for such a person at all, not a list of people who would for sure. You'd probably want better numbers than that unless you're sure you can get all of them.

What does this mean for legislation?

It doesn't necessarily need to mean anything. Representatives of all faiths or lack thereof can govern in a secular manner that doesn't favor any particular worldview.

The Congressional Freethought Caucus, dedicated to fostering science and reason while defending the secular nature of government, has 14 members. It is, obviously, impossible for all its members to be non-religious. Its members represent a variety of faiths and denominations of Christianity, including humanism, while supporting all people's rights.

A remaining concern is that the disproportionate representation could lead to specific points of view not being heard. There are no atheists in Congress to articulate their viewpoints on legislation that concerns others like them. This lack of representation is something that can and has been said for other demographic groups both now and at different points in our history.

In any small body representing a larger one, there will be strange demographic mismatches by necessity. In the case of the United States Congress, these differences are rather pronounced. While they may have only a limited effect on legislation, there may be other, less tangible ways that this disconnect causes issues.

Or, it might be nothing more than a statistical curiosity.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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