Faith and Deconstructing the Exclusivity of Truth

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Enass Zayed gives her take on the concept of faith and truth in a world of varied ideologies and experiences.

Over the course of this last year I have been asked to reflect on my religious ideologies quite a bit. There have been questions that I have had welling up from my own traditions that I have had to find answers to and there have been aspects of other traditions that I have felt were so profound that I have tried to incorporate them into my own belief structure. One of the biggest things that I have had to work my mind around is the concept of faith and how it exists within the concept of exclusive truth. There are many people who hold the belief that their traditions are the only proper way to behave. This phenomenon is prevalent in all aspects of life; religious or secular. My biggest challenge has been trying to remove myself from the ranks of the exclusive.

On our very first meeting, Mat Charnay asked me to define faith. While the clear and obvious answer is full trust in something outside of your self, I felt as though that was not enough to encapsulate the idea. Faith is taking the leap and hoping something catches you. In my mind, the strongest faith comes from knowing that there is a possibility that things are not quite as you imagine them, but committing to your ideas anyway. Faith is built by making informed decisions and seeking knowledge in all its forms so that any ideas that are created are likely to stand the barrage of obstacles that life throws at us. I am a firm believer in the idea of individual truth as opposed to a general and exclusive truth. Not everyone’s idea of religion are going to be able to satisfy the needs of the rest of the world and that is okay. In fact, that is the most beautiful things about faith in general. When properly executed, faith allows many people to have beautiful, complicated, and extensive ideas about every part of their lives: ideas that are relevant to their relationship with their world and their religion.

While most of this idea is pretty elementary to most, the part that I believe is left out is the idea that we might be wrong. I know that there is slight possibility that everything I hold true could be proven wrong tomorrow, but this understanding is what keeps my concept of faith growing. My personal approach to religious belief is that (most) everything is fluid. Ever since I was a child, I have done my own research into the religious systems that have surrounded me. I was never content to let someone give me traditions without understanding why there were valid or relevant. I was never content in settling on one answer because that would have meant that my research into faith would have stopped. Once I reach a comfortable conclusion, there is no point in continuing my search for a self relevant truth. My faith is built on the idea that I have to build knowledge to minimize the possibility that I am wrong about everything.

So, is the exclusivity of truth even relevant in the discussion of faith? In my opinion it is. From personal experience I have found that many people are unwilling to question their concept of truth as it would apply to another person. There is also little thought put into the idea that we do not always have the answers to everything. The idea of an exclusive truth lends itself to the idea that one religion is more valid than any others. This concept is problematic because so many religions teach that religion is a shared experience even if we do not all carry out our beliefs in the same manner and traditions. While my understanding of truth may be valid today, it is valid only in my experiences and only until something to the contrary comes into my world view. Until then, I feel as though I owe it to my faith and my religious belief to continuously research and build a stronger foundation from which I can take my leap of faith.

Faith, Falling Down, and Vampires

downloadInterfaith Scholar Thano Prokos gives his insight on music, faith, and spirit. 

We recently opened our Scholar meeting by answering the question “What fills your spirit?” Being the indecisive and long-winded person that I am, I decided to present my fellow scholars with my own litany of spirit fillers which in includes (but is not limited to) church, writing, English Renaissance literature, going on walks, singing in large groups, drawing pictures of pink fluffy unicorns, and listening to music.

Given that June will soon spring upon us, like a Greek grandmother on a cup of communion, I’m about to fill my mouth, ears, and spirit with song because it’s…. wait for it… THE SUMMER CONCERT SEASON! And this year, I’ll be starting off my annual concert binge with Vampire Weekend in early June, followed by Jack White in July, and concluding with Chicago’s Riot Fest (with some other names in between).

But Thano, how can you—a practicing Orthodox Christian—submit yourself to the Devil’s melodies on one day and go to church in good conscience the next day? Well old crotchety 1950’s man, let me tell you a little somethin’-somethin.’

It’s definitely challenging to be Orthodox and a lover of modern music. I’ll be blunt: there’s a lot of stuff out there that I consider garbage—garbage I sometimes listen to—but garbage nonetheless. There’s art that’s uncreative, there’s art that doesn’t challenge you, there’s, there’s art that’s totally shallow, there’s art that purely seeks to antagonize certain audiences, and I really feel that a lot of that stuff doesn’t really do anything good for listeners.

But at the same time, there are songs that are critical of certain religious beliefs that I really appreciate. Take, for example, a couple of my favorite tracks from the latest Vampire Weekend album: “Unbelievers and “Ya Hey.” Both of these songs depict their speaker’s inability to connect to the divine and the Judeo-Christian concept of God.

The chorus in “Unbelievers” goes like this:

 

I’m not excited [about God], but should I be?
Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?
I know I love you,
and you love the sea,
but what holy water contains a little drop, little drop for me?”

It refers to the lack of nourishment that the speaker receives from the religious culture that surrounds him.

Ya Hey” uses a few biblical allusions to describe an inability to connect with God, while background vocals continuously repeat the song’s title (a pun on Yeweh):

“Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name,
only “I am that I am.

But who could ever live that way?”

So, both of these songs depict a struggle with spirituality, and though I’m probably on the other side of this struggle than the band’s songwriter Ezra Koenig, I can definitely relate to the difficulties of experiencing faith that Ezra Koenig sings about. Do I ever feel like religion isn’t doing anything for me? Do I ever feel like God is distant? Of course I do! Going to shows like these is one of my favorite examples of inter-faith in action: People who believe different things, but still use music to confront similar struggles of belief.

So let’s get back to spirit-filling. How does acknowledging my struggles—and thereby confronting my own moments of spiritual emptiness—fill my spirit? Is it filled from watching some of my favorite musicians dancing and enjoying themselves on stage? Is it filled from the sound of a stadium full of people singing along to my favorite song? Is it filled by the misty sensation of a cup of Miller Light raining down over my head as it flies further up towards the stage? Not quite to any of these, but I actually do enjoy getting the occasional beer shower.

When I confront really challenging songs or poetry, the filling of my spirit comes from knowing that if I do “fall down” from maintaining my relationship with God, I have the opportunity to “get back up” and continue dealing with my struggles. Here’s a better articulation of that comforting thought from the Orthodox theologian Jim Forrest’s book Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness:

The story is called “A Fallen Monk Seeks Advice From St. Sisoes the Great”

A young monk said to Abba Sisoes: “Abba, what should I do? I fell.” The elder answered: “Get up!” The monk said: “I got up and I fell again!” The elder replied: “Get up again!” But the young monk asked: “For how long should I get up when I fall?” “Until your death,” answered Abba Sisoes. “For a man heads to his judgment either fallen or getting back up again.”

And who knows, maybe one day there will be a Vampire Weekend song about that.

Vincentian Moments

Part of our work with the Interfaith Scholars is to make moves to draw people closer together through our different faiths. Our purpose is to transcend differences and better understand one another and the role that our faith plays in our day to day lives. One of the ways that the scholars do this is by creating what we call Vincentian Moments. These moments take an aspect of each faith tradition and draw a comparison to an aspect of St. Vincent Depaul’s teachings. 

The first installment comes from Scholar Thano Prokos who decided to on his own background in the Greek Orthodox Faith.

St. Vincent says,

 “Our Lord humbles in order to raise up, and allows the suffering of interior and exterior afflictions in order to bring about peace. He often desires some things more than we do, but wants us to merit the grace of accomplishing them by several practices of virtue and to beg for this with many prayers.”

In “Taking the More Excellent Way,” Fr. Anthony Hughes talks about the story of St. Mary of Egypt and uses it to explain on how we make use of personal suffering. He argues that our trials and suffering are the things that make us grow and we become beautiful human beings.

St. Vincent stresses the same idea, that when we are humbled in our lives it’s our duty to rise back up.  What both men are saying, is that the hardships we face are not necessarily what we should focus on. We shouldn’t be consumed by our grief. Rather, it’s important to focus on what the next step is. How do we respond to tragedy? Both men encourage a detachment from the experience of grief and a focus on the divine through prayer.

Vincent asks us to say our own personal prayers to God with the hope that our prayer focuses our attention on what is good and how we can strive to be better. Fr. Anthony asks us to pray for others, particularly those who hurt us. The goal of this practice is less “divine intervention” but more to remind us that those who hurt us are every bit as human as we are. It changes our perception of them from the evil other into someone that we can be compassionate towards in the hopes that in the future, we can demonstrate our growth by meeting  hostility with love.

New Scholars. New Reflections.

Over the summer, a group of our interfaith scholars headed to New York City in order to experience each other’s faith in such a way that we could move past any preconceived notions and actually grasp what the others believed. For most college age students, a trip to New York is all about the kind of shenanigans that can be accomplished and summer is about losing all responsibility and just relaxing. This summer shifted our focus because we were not letting time idly pass by. We were pushed out of our comfort zones in an effort to bring all of us closer together. We had the rest of the summer to reflect and decide if that plan worked or not. 

Each scholar was asked to reflect on:

  • What experience was inspiring?
  • What was surprising?
  •  

    What challenges were confronted?

  • What made you care?

Interfaith Scholar extraordinaire Kamieshia Graves gave us her reflection:

“New York. (insert happy sigh here) The city of wonders and great opportunities. The place to be with all its magnificent city lights illuminating the picturesque skyline. All the snazzy people with ambitions and dreams that are out of this world. Forget Home, Dorothy! There’s no place like New York!!!!!!”

Yeah… definitely not how I felt initially. May I offer a bit of my reality?

I never had the burning desire to go to NY. In fact, I was so dedicated to being a Chicagoan that I was almost positive that I would never partake in the blasphemous act of going to New York. It sounds ridiculous because it was ridiculous– don’t judge me. I think NY simply terrified me causing the lack of motivation to visit; however, I agreed to go with Interfaith Scholars 2013-2014 (woot woot!) and the adventure began.

You see, the day of travel came and butterflies are too cute to describe how I felt. I hadn’t previously met any of my team members with whom I would be riding all the way to NY. I’m a pretty easygoing person, but the thought of not being accepted into the group worried me quite a bit and I must say that first day was quite a challenge for me. It was like transferring to a new high school during senior year—I know from experience. Everyone was already comfortable and easily initiated conversations and laughed. Meanwhile, I fought to find a cool way to just jump in, which I never figured out. Instead, I randomly would ask a question, like a dork, never realizing that the focus was on the Game of Thrones, which I knew nothing about. (PS. Thanks guys for inspiring me to watch it. It is good!) Needless to say, I slept most of that ride.

Fast-forward:

We arrived and had arrangements to stay in the Bronx! I loved the Bronx immediately because it gave me a sense of comfort when I needed it most. I felt more connected with the residents of that area more so than I did with the individuals I was to live with. I felt that if I walked into a random group of New Yorkers they would listen to me, but I did not feel that way with my own team. Then all of a sudden, a bright light broke through the sky and we had a “Haaaaaaallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelu-u-u-u-jahhhh” moment and one person from my group struck up a conversation with me and then another and we just clicked, which actually surprised me! Although I believe that the foundation of Christianity with regards to behavior towards others is to be Christ-like by loving everyone despite differences, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I, a nondenominational Christian, had so much in common, including some religious beliefs, with the two young women who are both Muslim. The shared commonalities even extended to the other faith practices represented in the group. Can you imagine the look on my face when I met the Greek Orthodox priest and learned that he is just as crazy hilarious as my own pastor?! I’m sorry, but when I first heard Greek Orthodox I let my preconceived notions nurture the idea of taking a nap before going to that church. I expected it to be boring, but I happily admitted my error after learning that the St Nick is Santa. I had to send silent prayers of forgiveness to each of the faith practices many times that trip; I wouldn’t have changed it though because I learned a great deal about others as well as myself.

Though some may disagree, I would be comfortable saying that we are all working toward the same goal, but simply using different paths. I love it!

During a free day, I got to explore this a bit more when the leaders of the group gave us the challenge of initiating a conversation with a native and, if not too strenuous, centering the conversation on religion. I, along with the same two young ladies, found it rather easy to achieve this at Union Square with a bunch of random men from different faith practices. We got into this really crazy discussion (borderline debate at times) about Christianity, Atheism, and Islam with a man who identified himself as atheist. More and more people joined, and we developed this cycle of discussing religion and being silly. In the midst of all this enjoyable chaos, there was an older Islamic woman whose mere presence was awe-inspiring. This woman was selling water to make a profit. A couple of the guys bought water, and one said that he had done it because he felt sorry for her. The crazy thing is this lady was joyous and goofy. At least for the moment, she had not let life steal her love of living. I remember that she had jokingly asked one of the men why he hadn’t made a pass at one of us ladies and she laughed with us. It seems so simple, but I found it inspirational because life has dealt some crazy cards to me and I had allowed it to start having an effect on my perspective, but her presence reminded me of what I do have- laughter. (I have this crazy obnoxious laugh but I love it because it makes others laugh too.) I let the hard stuff blur my positive and optimistic outlook, but her presence.

Jumping gears to a not so religious moment that I have to share because it touched me:

I cannot remember where we were or why we were there but we were at a very small park- it was literally a fountain with benches around it- and there was this little girl who was in her own little world. She danced and danced without a care in the world, and all of us just watched her, but not in a creepy way. She eventually realized she had an audience and she stopped and returned the favor. She just looked at me… and looked… and looked until she smiled a big cheerful smile provoking me to do the same. She waved at me giddily twice before her mother looked back to check on the fuss. Her daughter ran to her and pointed at me and waved again. Our group had turned to leave, but before leaving to proceed to our next destination I turned to see her awaiting a goodbye. We waved one last time and I walked away touched by the purity of that carefree child.

I could go on and on about the IFS trip to NY, but I think I have already talked waaaaay too much. What can I say? Because of the memories I was gifted, I had a lot to say about the remarkable city of New York. As of right now, there is no place like it.

 

Being Present as a Form of Healing: QIRC Reflection

Dialogue in the happening...
Dialogue in the happening…
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Vincentian Art Exhibit

I think I’m getting the hang of Quarterly Inter-Religious Celebrations (QIRC). This was my second QIRC on staff, and 4th or 5th QIRC overall, I believe. It was very different going from hosting to presenting on the evening’s theme, Healing A Wounded World Through Art, – I found the former to be significantly less challenging than the latter, which is stressful for obvious reasons. That said, I had a fantastic time.

One of the things that caught me off guard was how empowered I felt in my religious identity while speaking about it to others. In the past, I have been unwilling to identify with a specific tradition or faith because I had been unwilling to claim ownership over what I believed. I understand now that this is because I had been looking for the ‘perfect’ religion. Without ever realizing it (and, indeed, oftentimes hiding behind a mask of feigned ambivalence), I was hailing religions like cabs – only to leave each taxi the second that their route to my destination varied from the one I desired. ‘There’s got to be a cabbie that has thought about this route before, someone who knows exactly what it is that I should do,’ I thought to myself. Since then, I have come to understand that only I can chart this route, because only I have had my life of experiences. As a result, I’ve begun to take ownership over what I believe; love it even. And it seems as though now that I love what I believe, people are more interested in hearing me talk about it – and now that people want to hear what I have to say about Buddhism rather than what others have to say,  it is easier for me to find delight in my identity. I want to hear what I have to say. I suppose that is the healing that I will take from the QIRC as a whole.

Islamic Art Exhibit
Islamic Art Exhibit

I also couldn’t possibly write a reflection without commenting on Morgan Spears’ performance. God, what a stupendous, brave, and vulnerable piece of art. And how much more challenging and perfect could it have possibly been for our night’s theme? I had personally invited her to perform, but had no idea that her poem would be so personal and self-revolutionary. I think the most powerful part of the entire evening for me was when, after Morgan performed, she came over to my booth to thank me for asking her to be a part of the evening. She looked me in the eyes with an expression that said ‘sorry if that got out of hand…I kind of lost track of myself’, and I told her that she was incredible, and then she just smiled and we both laughed and hugged. She said that she was super nervous to open herself up the way she did, but I could see in her face how grounded and lucid the experience had left her feeling. Morgan’s performance, more than perhaps anything else at the QIRC, invited the audience to engage in radical transparency, heartfelt expression, and most importantly, the kind of listening that one can only learn by calling out for God and enduring the silence before Her/His reply.

Until next quarter!

Josh Graber ’14

Faith on the Hill: The Religious Diversity of the 113th Congress – Pew Forum on Religion

Faith on the Hill: The Religious Diversity of the 113th Congress – Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

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ANALYSIS November 16, 2012

The newly elected, 113th Congress includes the first Buddhist to serve in the Senate, the first Hindu to serve in either chamber and the first member of Congress to describe her religion as “none,” continuing a gradual increase in religious diversity that mirrors trends in the country as a whole. While Congress remains majority Protestant, the institution is far less so today than it was 50 years ago, when nearly three-quarters of the members belonged to Protestant denominations.

Catholics have seen the biggest gains among the 530 seats in the new Congress that have been decided as of Nov. 16. So far, Catholics have picked up five seats, for a total of 161, raising their share to just over 30%.1 The biggest decline is among Jews, who have been elected to 32 seats (6%), seven fewer than in the 112th Congress, where Jews held 39 seats (7%).2 Mormons continue to hold 15 seats (about 3%), the same as in the previous Congress.

Protestants also appear likely to continue to occupy about the same proportion of seats (56%) as in the 112th Congress (57%). In addition, the Protestant share of each political party in the new Congress is about the same as in the 112th; roughly seven-in-ten Republicans are Protestants, compared with fewer than half of Democrats. However, the members elected for the first time in 2012 are less Protestant than the group first elected in 2010; 48% are Protestant, compared with 59% of those elected for the first time in 2010.

Protestants, Catholics and Jews each make up a greater percentage of the members of Congress than of all U.S. adults. The same is true for some sub-groups of Protestants, such as Episcopalians and Presbyterians. By contrast, Pentecostals are a much smaller percentage of Congress than of the general public. Due in part to electoral gains in recent years, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus now are represented in Congress in closer proportion to their numbers in the U.S. adult population. But some small religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, are not represented at all in Congress.

Perhaps the greatest disparity, however, is between the percentage of U.S. adults and the percentage of members of Congress who do not identify with any particular religion. About one-in-five U.S. adults describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – a group sometimes collectively called the “nones.” But only one member of the new Congress, Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), is religiously unaffiliated, according to information gathered by CQ Roll Call. Sinema is the first member of Congress to publicly describe her religion as “none,” though 10 other members of the 113th Congress (about 2%) do not specify a religious affiliation, up from six members (about 1%) of the previous Congress.3 This is about the same as the percentage of U.S. adults in Pew Research Center surveys who say that they don’t know, or refuse to specify, their faith (about 2%).

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These are some of the findings from a new analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life of congressional data compiled primarily by CQ Roll Call. The analysis compares the religious affiliations of members of the new Congress with Pew Research Center survey data on the U.S. public. CQ Roll Call gathered information on the religious affiliations of members of Congress through questionnaires and follow-up phone calls to members’ and candidates’ offices, and the Pew Forum supplemented this with additional research.

The religious diversity of the 113th congress

Congress’ First Hindu and Other Firsts

In January 2013, when the 113th Congress is sworn in, Hawaii Democrat Tulsi Gabbard will become the first Hindu in either the House of Representatives or the Senate.4 Gabbard, an Iraq War veteran who has served on the Honolulu City Council and in the Hawaii state legislature, will represent Hawaii’s 2nd congressional district. Gabbard will take over the seat held in the 112th Congress by Rep. Mazie K. Hirono (D), who on Nov. 6 became the first Buddhist elected to the Senate.

In 2006, Hirono and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) became the first Buddhists to be elected to the House. Four years later, they were joined by a third Buddhist member, Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii). Johnson and Hanabusa were re-elected to serve in the 113th Congress.

The first Muslim to serve in either the House or the Senate, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), was elected in 2006. Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) became the second Muslim in Congress when he won a special election in 2008. In 2012, Michigan Democrat Syed Taj lost his bid to become the third Muslim member of Congress. Ellison and Carson were re-elected.

Members of other small religious groups started serving in Congress more than a century ago. The first Jewish member arrived in 1845, when Lewis Charles Levin of the American Party began representing Pennsylvania in the House. The first Mormon in Congress, John Milton Bernhisel, began serving in 1851, after Utah was officially recognized as a territory. California Democrat Dalip Singh Saund, the first and so far only Sikh to serve in Congress, served three terms starting in 1957.

Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), a Unitarian who joined Congress in 1973, became the first member of Congress to publicly declare, in 2007, that he does not believe in a Supreme Being. He lost his re-election bid in 2012.

The New, 113th Congress

Of the 530 members of the new Congress whose races have been decided as of Nov. 16, 299 are Protestant, which is about the same percentage (56%) as in the 112th Congress (57%) and higher than the share of Protestants in the U.S. adult population (48%). But the proportion of Protestants in Congress has been in gradual decline for decades, and the number elected this year may end up being lower than the number in the previous Congress (307), even if the difference in percentage terms is slight.

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There have been modest changes in congressional representation within Protestant denominational families. Most notably, in the new Congress the number of Baptists has increased by six and the number of Methodists has decreased by four. Nonetheless, these two groups remain the largest Protestant sub-groups, as in the 112th Congress. The percentage of Methodists is slightly higher in Congress (about 9%) than in the general public (around 6%); the reverse is true for Baptists (14% of Congress and roughly 17% of all adults). The next-largest Protestant groups are Presbyterians and Episcopalians; both are more than five percentage points more numerous in Congress than among the general population.5

Protestants who do not specify a particular denomination (58 members) also comprise a large proportion of Congress (11%). It is unclear what percentage of these unspecified Protestants are affiliated with nondenominational churches; just three members of the 113th Congress specify that they belong to nondenominational Protestant churches.

Meanwhile, the number of Catholics in the 113th Congress has risen to 161 (as of Nov. 16), up from 156 in the previously elected body. If Protestants are not counted together but as separate denominations, then Catholics are the largest religious group in the 113th Congress. They represent more than 30% of the members in the 113th, compared with 29% in the previous Congress. About a fifth of the U.S. adult population (22%) is Catholic.

The number of Jewish members of Congress decreased from 39 to 32. There are 10 Jewish senators and 22 Jewish members of the House of Representatives in the 113th Congress. Jews now make up 6% of Congress (down from 7% in the 112th Congress). But this is still about three times the Jewish share of the general population (2%).

The number of Mormons in the 113th Congress (15) is the same as in the 112th, and they are about as prevalent in Congress (almost 3%) as in the public at large (2%).

As previously mentioned, some other small religious groups are about as numerically well-represented on Capitol Hill as in the general population. Muslims account for less than 1% of the U.S. adult population and make up 0.4% of Congress. Similarly, Buddhists and Hindus (also less than 1% of the U.S. adult population) make up 0.6% and 0.2% of Congress, respectively. Orthodox Christians also make up less than 1% of U.S. adults and comprise 0.9% of Congress. There are no Jehovah’s Witnesses in Congress; the group has a relatively small presence (less than 1%) in the U.S. population as a whole.

Differences by Chamber

Several religious groups are represented in roughly equal proportions in both houses of Congress, including Methodists (9% in each) and Lutherans (4% in the House, 5% in the Senate).

However, a few religious groups continue to have lopsided representation in one chamber or the other. For example, Jews make up 10% of the new Senate but 5% of the House. Likewise, Mormons make up 7% of the Senate and 2% of the House. Presbyterians make up more than twice as much of the Senate as the House (16% vs. 6%). The share of Baptists, by contrast, is greater in the House (15%) than in the Senate (9%), as is the percentage of Episcopalians (8% vs. 4%).

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Differences by Party Affiliation

Overall, 48% of the members of the new Congress are Democrats, and 52% are Republicans.

Looking at the partisan breakdown of the various religious groups, Lutherans are divided 50%-50% between the parties. The other sizable Protestant groups (Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians) – as well as Protestants as a whole – have more Republicans than Democrats. The same is true for Mormons; 12 of the 15 Mormon members of the new Congress are Republicans. Catholics are slightly tilted toward the Democrats (57%-43%). Jewish members are mostly Democratic (97%); in fact, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is the only Jewish Republican in Congress. The other non-Christian groups (Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus) are comprised exclusively of Democrats. All the members of Congress who did not specify a religion are also Democrats.

Looking at the religious breakdown of the political parties, 69% of congressional Republicans are Protestant, while fewer than half of Democrats (43%) belong to Protestant denominational families. (This includes newly elected independent Angus King of Maine, who has said he will caucus with Senate Democrats.) On the other hand, Catholics make up a greater share of Democratic members (36%) than they do of GOP members (25%). And while Jews make up 12% of all congressional Democrats (including one independent who generally caucuses with the Democrats, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont), they account for less than 1% of congressional Republicans.

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First-Time Members

The 81 members who were elected for the first time in 2012 are less Protestant than the 112 first-time members elected in 2010. In the 112th Congress, about six-in-ten members of the congressional freshman class were Protestant (59%), but that figure dipped to less than 50% in the most recent election. The percentage of freshman members who are Baptist and Presbyterian also decreased (from 16% to 10% for Baptists and from 8% to 4% for Presbyterians).

Catholics comprise a higher percentage of first-time members (37%) than of incumbent members (29%). Likewise, unspecified Protestants make up a greater percentage of freshman members (19%) than of incumbents (10%).

The reverse is true for most other groups. About 3% of the first-time members are Jewish, compared with 7% of incumbents. Presbyterians also make up a somewhat larger share of incumbents (9%) than of freshman members (4%). Otherwise, there are relatively small differences in religious affiliation between first-time and incumbent members.

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Looking Back

In many ways, the changes in the religious makeup of Congress during the last half-century mirror broader changes in American society. Congress, like the nation as a whole, has become much less Protestant and more religiously diverse. The number of Protestants in Congress has dropped from three-quarters (75%) in 1961 to 56% today, which roughly tracks with broader religious demographic trends during this period. As recently as the 1980s, General Social Surveys found that about six-in-ten Americans identified themselves as Protestants. In aggregated surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2012 and reported in the Pew Forum’s October 2012 report “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” the share of self-identified Protestants has dipped to just under half (48%).

Likewise, many of the major Protestant denominational families have lost ground in Congress in the past 50 years. Methodists, who made up nearly one-in-five members (18%) of the 87th Congress, which was seated in 1961, make up 9% of the 113th Congress. Some other Protestant denominational families also have seen a decline in their numerical representation in Congress. For example, Episcopalians have gone from 12% to 7% and Congregationalists from 5% to less than 1% during this period.

A few Protestant groups have fared somewhat better, however. From 1961 to today, the proportion of Baptists in Congress has increased slightly from 12% to 14%, and the Lutheran share has stayed roughly the same (around 4%).

Meanwhile, other religious groups have seen their share of congressional seats grow, in some cases dramatically. Catholics, for instance, have gone from 19% of the congressional membership in 1961 to 30% today. The percentage of Jewish members of Congress has risen from 2% in 1961 to 6% today.

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View a PDF listing the religious affiliation of each member of the 113th Congress.

This analysis was written by Tracy Miller, Editor, Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.


Footnotes:

1 This analysis is based on the 530 races that have been called as of Nov. 16, 2012. It excludes four races in which votes are still being counted (Ariz.-02, Calif.-52, Fla.-18 and N.C.-07) as well as the race in Louisiana’s 3rd district, which will be decided in a Dec. 3 runoff. All the candidates in these races are either Protestant or Catholic. Because each additional seat represents just 0.2% of the full Congress, the percentage totals for Protestants and Catholics are unlikely to shift by more than one percentage point. (return to text)

2 The Jewish figures appear to be final because there are no Jewish candidates in the five races that have yet to be determined. (return to text)

3 Tammy Baldwin, a Democratic congresswoman from Wisconsin who was elected to the Senate in 2012, was described in a recent New York Times article as someone who “does not discuss her religiosity.” In response to queries from CQ Roll Call, Baldwin’s office has described her religion as “unspecified,” and she is included in this analysis among the 10 members who did not specify a religion. If, instead, Baldwin were counted with Sinema as unaffiliated (or “none”), they would comprise about 0.4% of the new Congress. This would still be well below the nearly 20% of all U.S. adults who say they are unaffiliated, based on aggregated data from surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in 2012 and reported in the Pew Forum’s October 2012 report, “‘Nones’ on the Rise.” (return to text)

4 Ami Bera, who was elected for the first time in 2012 to represent California’s 7th congressional district, was raised Hindu but now identifies as a Unitarian Universalist. He will be the only Unitarian Universalist in the 113th Congress. (return to text)

5 This analysis counts Christian Scientists as a Protestant denominational family in both the 112th and 113th Congresses because that is how they are counted in the Pew Research Center figures used for the general public. In previous Pew Forum analyses of the religious affiliations of the members of Congress, Christian Scientists were categorized as “Other Christians” because that is how they were counted in the general public numbers at that time.(return to text)

Photo Credit: © Wes Thompson/Corbis

THE PEW FORUM ON RELIGION AND PUBLIC LIFE

Standing In Unity Against Violence

As winds blew through the Chicago skyline on Wednesday the 18th of September, a group of student leaders from the United Muslims Moving Ahead DePaul University on-campus organization decided to hold a candle-light vigil. The vigil was a call for students and faculty to stand together in unity against violence occurring all over the world. During the Unity Vigil the students gave their respects to the United States Ambassador Christopher Stevens who was serving in the US embassy in Libya. We came together on an evening to condemn the violent protests that erupted as a result of the movie “Innocence of Muslims” which meant to insult the Prophet Mohammed (Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him). We also stood together against violence happening within the Syrian Crisis, the daily shootings in Chicago’s neighborhoods, and anywhere else across the world.

As an Interfaith Scholar, there was nothing more meaningful that night than to be supported by faculty members and students representing diverse faith and spiritual backgrounds standing shoulder-to-shoulder in unity against violence. The importance and significance for us all to experience and share each other’s feelings about certain on-goings around the world is something that this world needs more of. But to then take it a step further by building a support system, and embracing one another in a time that calls us to do so, is hopefully an eternal bond that each one of us can use.

The Muslim Chaplain at DePaul Abdul-Malik Ryan, reached out to the DePaul community through an email inviting his colleagues and students to attend the vigil, “In light of the continued violence here in Chicago and around the world, and especially the violence that is being presented as a motivation of ‘religious faith,’ the students want to make a strong statement that the DePaul community, and especially people of all faiths here at DePaul stand united against violence and as witnesses for peace and justice.” Chaplain Abdul-Malik stressed the fact that Islam as a religion condemns violence and prohibits the killing of innocent people.

Another member that is dear to the DePaul community and a representative from the University Ministry Office and Assistant Chaplain of the Office of Religious Diversity, Katie Brick shared a piece from the Superior General Gregory Gay, who wrote about Vincentian non-violence. Chaplain Brick read out a few quotes in which General Gray characterized non-violence as though it should be used as a means of “creating harmony based on diversity, rather than using diversity as a justification for violence.” This phrase stood out to me personally because it embraced the theme of unity – the purpose and reason to why we were all standing together.

On September 25th, President Barack Obama spoke to the United Nations General Assembly stating, “We have taken these positions because we believe that freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or Western values – they are universal values.” Standing together as a strong and diverse DePaul community acknowledging the pain and creating a safe space that creates the chance for all of us to embrace one another, and to share our experiences with one another.

Our shared presence at the Unity Vigil affirmed to me and to the rest of the DePaul Community that brotherhood and sisterhood exists in a diverse form on campus. The Unity Vigil was also a way for the DePaul community to spread awareness about the violence going on in the world. And as I write this blog post I can’t help but sing the words of the song written by India Arie, “There’s hope, it doesn’t cost a thing to smile, you don’t have to pay to laugh, you better thank God for that.”

Dana Jabri ’15

Freshmen Connections Retreat Reflection 2012 – DePaul

I’m a bit of a retreat junkie, so it was with no hesitation that I signed myself up for the Catholic Campus Ministry Freshmen Connections Retreat. I’ve been drawn to CCM ever since I arrived on campus and have since made myself a permanent fixture in their office on the first floor of the Student Center. I was only ever told good things about the retreat, so I signed myself up to see for myself how much fun it could be. I am not the most outgoing person, so the idea of meeting other freshmen who had an active investment in their faith was just too good an opportunity to pass up. So with all these thoughts in my mind, I found myself on Friday, September 21st being hustled off to the Cenacle Sisters’ Retreat and Conference Center not exactly knowing what to expect.

I was not left disappointed. The entire retreat was a rousing 24 hour ordeal filled with much laughter, prayer, singing, dancing and talking. Talking truly was the backbone of the experience. We listened to talks given by upperclassmen and their experiences at DePaul, we talked to each other in small groups and even in one-on-one sessions, and we spent solitary time engaging in discussion with God through silent prayer. We were always encouraged to open ourselves up to each other and to allow our vulnerable sides to be visible so that we could all come together in one community with the love and guidance of God. I know that within those 24 hours I felt a part of something much larger than just myself and my own concerns and worries. I was a member in a faith-filled community where I was just free to be myself.

That’s the wonderful thing about retreats. There’s just something about being thrown together with people of all walks of life bound together by one common purpose that just forces you to let your true self show. I was willing to be silly and loud and to laugh because I knew no one was judging me and I wasn’t judging anyone in return. I opened myself up to my share group and expressed thoughts and memories that I normally wouldn’t have easily shared with others. I let myself grow closer to God by growing closer to those around me. That’s an experience I couldn’t have achieved if I had not gone on Freshmen Connections last weekend. That experience means everything to me.

I’ve been told that you can judge the success of a retreat once it’s over and everyone goes out into the real world to apply everything they learned about themselves and their faith. If that’s the case, then Freshmen Connections is already proving to have been a very successful retreat. Walking through campus I have seen pockets of my fellow freshman ‘retreatants’ sitting down and chatting together. I began to see friendships grow as the retreat continued to blossom. This past Sunday night at Mass, Becca was an alter serving for the first time here at DePaul, Shannon was playing the oboe for the liturgical choice as Katie sang, Nick was greeting parish members as a part of hospitality and scores of the freshmen ‘retreatants’ were sitting in the pews all coming together in the community of mass. It’s my hope that all of us freshmen continue on our faith filled journeys here at DePaul and that we’ll rely on each other when the road gets rough and will always be here for one another.

That’s what Freshmen Connections gave us; a community where we all belong.

Mace Ranazzi – Freshman, Catholic.

Double major History/English. Minor in Classical Studies.

From: Grand Rapids, MI. Favorite film: Titanic.