Faith in our leaders is vital for democracy

 Faith in our leaders is vital for democracy
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When new members were sworn into the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on Thursday, the 116th Congress became the most religiously diverse in America’s history. It matters that our political leadership generally reflects “We the People" and the uptick in religious diversity reflects an alignment — with a few caveats — of Congress with the population in general. We know that citizens are more willing to engage and participate in politics when they believe that they belong, that their own voices are being represented and heard.

Among many firsts last week, the first two Muslim women representatives joined the House. At the swearing-in for the U.S. House members, a large table displayed a wide choice of books on which to place one’s hand to take the ceremonial oath of office, ranging from the U.S. Constitution to multiple historic bibles to the Quran once owned by Thomas Jefferson.

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The number of members of Congress who practice a faith other than Christianity increased by five people over the prior Congress. Just as significant was the growth of two other categories: those who reported an "unspecified" Protestant identity, up 16, or who didn’t know/refused to answer, up eight members from 2017. So not only does Congress have more members from diverse religious traditions, but also more who are not specifying their faith affiliations.

Why do we care about the religious composition of our public leadership? After all, there is no religious test for public office and the First Amendment guarantees freedom of religious expression as well as no established or official government religion.

A person from any religious background, or none at all, can not only represent us, but lead us. To many Americans, this seems straightforward. Yet others see things differently, believing that a specific religious framework must ground a leader’s morality. The political philosopher John Locke famously wrote in 1689 — even as he was arguing for religious toleration — that atheists could not make binding promises and Catholics and Muslims belonged to external communities that called into question their civic commitment.

According to a Pew Research Center report, “Christians are overrepresented” in the U.S. Congress. Affiliations are self-reported and in comparison to the U.S. population in general, a disproportionate number of senators and representatives name their identity as Christian.

Conversely, a much higher proportion of Americans than congressional leaders report being unaffiliated. It seems plausible that some religiously non-engaged representatives or senators choose an unspecified Protestant category instead of unaffiliated. Why? In many districts and states, declaring a Christian identity still seems to be a positive factor in one’s electability.

But the widening of the religious and spiritual spectrum of Congress — both toward religious diversity and toward less denominational identity — is consistent with the demographic changes in the U.S. over recent decades. Harvard scholar Diana Eck calls America the most religiously diverse nation in the world and every major tradition and hundreds of smaller traditions are present in the U.S. At the same time, statistically, Christian Americans number the highest and, increasingly, unaffiliated is the next-largest category.

It matters a great deal in politics and in most every sphere of life that our leaders look like the people who follow them. This is not true in a literal sense, of course; religion and every other demographic factor like race and gender need not match perfectly between leaders and followers. But a widening representation of religious and non-religious views among our leaders widens the reach of “We the People.”

Of course, welcoming more faith perspectives into public debate risks even more cacophony and conflict than we already experience. Like most other matters of import today, citizens hold divergent religious beliefs and practices and will disagree. Yet religious differences are part and parcel of our wider debate about what it means to be a flourishing democracy.

To have those diverse perspectives present in our politics, including among our national leaders, is a positive step — not only toward ensuring that many voices engage the democratic process, but also for reaching constructive solutions to the social, political and economic issues that we face together.

Douglas A. Hicks is the dean and the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Religion at Oxford College of Emory University.