Congress, Culture, and a New Year’s Resolution

American religion has been in the news lately, specifically regarding federal partisan politics: we’ve seen stories about Democrats’ “religion problem” (as code for a problem with middle-American white Christianity), Congress’ increasing religious diversity but stable amount of Christian members, and just yesterday, an explanation for the latter phenomenon: the complex place of religiously unaffiliated voters within American religious politics.

It’s the last story that I’m interested in. The author is seeking to explain the “demographic mismatch between Congress and the rest of the country” – specifically, the underrepresentation of the “religiously unaffiliated”, who make up 23% of the country but are only represented by one religiously unaffiliated member of Congress.

The explanations for this are sensible and coherent: that religiously unaffiliated Americans tend to be young and therefore rarely vote; that they aren’t a demographically coherent group – they’re made up of atheists and agnostics, but also converts-in-progress, people in mixed-faith homes, and people who just don’t care very much about their religious identity – and are therefore unlikely to organize with each other; that it’s also difficult to organize based on a lack of identity, an unaffiliation.

It is these factors, the author suggests, which keep Congress’ religious demographics standing as they do – and if religiously unaffiliated voters are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, “they can vote”.

The article is an excellent exploration of why the religiously unaffiliated are unlikely to be specifically represented in Congress. However, it does not explore what seems to me to be the more pertinent question: why this 23% of unaffiliated Americans should be almost universally represented by Christian members of Congress, instead of members of a variety of faiths.

The title of the article is “Why Christians Are Disproportionately Powerful In Congress” – but the question is never answered. Instead, the question answered is “Why The Religiously Unaffiliated Are Disproportionately Powerless”, which is incredibly valuable, but wholly distinct. The conflation of these two questions does, however, make sense if a basic assumption is made: firstly, that if the religiously unaffiliated do not participate in politics, the religious will fill in the vacuum they leave; and secondly, that “the religious” does and must naturally mean Christians.

This is not the case. While many religious Americans are Christians, “religion” and “Christianity” are not synonyms, and American religious politics cannot be discussed as if all religious Americans followed Christian ethical teachings, believed in Christian articles of faith, or identified with the Christian community. In a multifaith nation, the political vacuum left by the civic apathy of the religiously unaffiliated should naturally be filled by the multiplicity of faiths that this nation contains.

It is not. In fact, as the Washington Post notes in the second article linked above, “religious diversity” in Congress has little or no effect on the numbers of Christians in Congress – instead, Buddhist and Hindu members of Congress tend to replace Jews, who remain slightly overrepresented in Congress (as do Mormons) but whose numbers are steadily declining.

The question the article ought to ask, therefore, is not “Why are the religiously unaffiliated disproportionately powerless in Congress?” It is, instead, “Why are the growing numbers of religiously unaffiliated Americans politically represented solely by the Christian community?”

The explanations for this question are wide – the religious right’s hyperactive political presence, religious gerrymandering, America’s tendency towards favoring Christians in all aspects of political life – but one possible explanation stands out to me: that many religiously unaffiliated people are culturally Christian, and therefore content to be represented by the culturally and religiously Christian.

It’s this explanation that’s particularly interesting to me because I’m Jewish, and because the vast majority of my friends are “religiously unaffiliated”. Many are atheists, and fiercely reject any association with Christianity – and yet they continue to celebrate Easter and Christmas, root themselves in a Catholic or Protestant academic tradition, and discuss human nature, the possibility of an afterlife, evil and good, sex, nature, art, and war in distinctly Christian ways.

This is, of course, due to the majority of my atheist friends being white and American, and therefore ancestrally from European countries where the history of these topics is inseparable from Christianity. However, I, too, am a white atheist, and my views on each of these topics are distinctly different because they are distinctly not rooted in a Christian tradition. I did not grow up with the concept of original sin in my culture, or the concept of sin at all; I did not grow up with the concept of Hell or the Devil in my culture; I did not grow up with the concept of crusading in my culture. Similarly, my friends did not grow up with the concepts of tikkun olam, mitzvot, or l’dor vador – and very few of them grew up with the concept of diaspora viscerally, tangibly present in their lives.

It takes more time and thought to communicate with each other, because of this. It takes time and thought to have discussions about the law, when my culture contains the concept of law-which-is-holy-which-is-duty-which-is-a-good-deed, and theirs does not; it takes time and thought to have discussions about evil, when their culture contains the concept of evil-which-is-temptation-which-is-pleasant/wrong, and mine does not. It takes time and thought to have social relationships, when our two cultures have distinct views on the basic definitions of forgiveness and repentance, or what “family” means, or even what makes someone a “real”member of a certain religion (the instinctive belief that “religion” is not just faith in God is something that I rarely find among these friends, for example).

This extra effort in communication is, I must admit, usually one-sided. I am highly educated about Christian culture, because I live in a Christian-majority country, and they are rarely educated about Jewish culture, because many of them have never met a Jew before moving to New York. But it’s rarely difficult, and never hostile, and it’s absolutely never been an obstacle to good conversation or friendship or affection.

Nevertheless: I am aware, distinctly and uncomfortably, of the presence of Christian culture and Christian religion in my country and in my government. I am aware of it in a way that my religiously unaffiliated friends whose ancestors were Christian are not – and I am aware of it in a way that my culturally and religiously Christian friends are not.

On that note: in the new year I’ve made an unofficial resolution to blog more, and to blog specifically from a Jewish perspective. My goal is to do this once a week, but as you’re all aware, this is a goal I’ve failed to achieve in the past; I’ll certainly try my best. I don’t intend to abandon my queer perspective, or New York perspective, or millennial perspective, or American perspective – those are all pretty important to the way I do Jewishness! – but I’d like to think more critically about Jewishness in America, and to do it in a longform way. (Also, I’d like to relieve the burden on my poor friends, who’ve dealt with my rants in group texts, Facebook messages, and other social media for quite long enough.)

Happy New Year, all – and may you all communicate thoughtfully and with interest in the months to come.

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