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Posted January 23, 2007

Congress more religiously diverse;
Catholics still well represented

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

With one Muslim and two Buddhist members, the 110th Congress is the most religiously diverse ever.

Catholics remain the largest denominational group in Congress, with 155 members -- 25 in the Senate and 130 in the House. But there are fewer Catholic Republicans in both houses since the 109th Congress and many more Catholic Democrats.

In the last Senate, Catholic members were nearly evenly split between the parties, with 11 Republicans and 13 Democrats. Now there are 9 Catholic Republicans and 16 Catholic Democrats in the Senate.

In the House at the start of the 109th Congress, there were 129 Catholics -- 57 Republicans and 72 Democrats. Although the total number of House Catholics in the 110th Congress is nearly the same at 130, the current group includes 42 Republicans and 88 Democrats.

Even Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., a Muslim who was sworn in as a member of Congress using a Quran once owned by President Thomas Jefferson, was raised a Catholic. He became a Muslim while in college at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Ellison's mother, Clida Ellison, recently told The Associated Press that she remains a practicing Catholic and attends Mass daily. But she said the controversy over her son's decision to be sworn in using the Quran rather than a Bible was a good thing, "because many people in America are going to learn what the diversity of America is all about."

The two new Buddhist members of Congress -- Democratic Reps. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Hank Johnson of Georgia -- have not spoken publicly about their religion.

Hirono is among 54 members of the 110th Congress who attended Jesuit institutions of higher education, according to a list compiled by the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. She earned her law degree in 1978 at Georgetown University Law School in Washington.

The number represents a nearly 15 percent increase compared to the 109th Congress, in which 47 of the 535 members were alumni of Jesuit colleges or universities, the association said.

Jesuit Father Charles Currie, association president, called the latest figures "an important reminder that a Jesuit education is meant to lead to lives of leadership and service."

"We are proud that this goal is realized at the highest levels of public service, as well as in countless other ways across the country and around the world," he added in a statement.

With the election of Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., as Senate majority leader, the 110th Congress also marks the highest congressional leadership position ever achieved by a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons.

In all there are 15 Mormons -- five senators and 10 representatives -- in the new Congress.

After Catholics, Baptists (67), Methodists (62), Jews (43), Presbyterians (43), Episcopalians (37) and Lutherans (17) are the most well-represented faith groups in the 110th Congress. Another 26 members of Congress describe themselves only as "Protestant," while 18 more list themselves as "Christian."

Six members of the current Congress say they have no religious affiliation.

Among the other Christian denominations with more than two members in the 110th Congress are the United Church of Christ (7), Christian Science (5), Eastern Orthodox (5) and Assembly of God (4). The African Methodist Episcopal Church, Christian Reformed Church, Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Seventh-day Adventists, Unitarian Universalists and unspecified evangelical churches have two members each.