Twist of Faith

03.09.14

10 Religious Surprises in the US Congress

A Modern Orthodox Jew, a Buddhist and a Quaker walk into…the Capitol? No joke, the US Congress is filled with a host of representatives from all types of religions.

If you let national approval ratings tell the story, the 113th Congress is known for being divided, do-nothing and often just plain dismal. But did you know that this is also the most religiously diverse Congress in American history? There are plenty of faithful surprises in the House and Senate. Here are 10.

1. When you think of Mormons in politics you generally think of...Utah. And Republicans. And of course, Mitt Romney. But did you know that the most powerful Mormon in Congress today is not from Utah at all? In fact, he’s not even a Republican, and also wasn't a huge fan of ol' Mitt!  

That's right folks: To the surprise of many, the most powerful Mormon in Congress is Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). Reid was raised agnostic, but converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as a college student. “The thing that was so impressive to me—in addition to the spiritual aspects that I’d never experienced before—was the emphasis on family,” Reid said about his conversion in a New Yorker article. And he's been hanging with the LDS church ever since. 

2. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, the new United States Representative for Hawaii's second congressional district, has had her fair share of "firsts." She's the first American Samoan in Congress, born in Leloaloa, American Samoa. She's also one of the first female combat veterans in the House or Senate, alongside Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth. But here’s a little-known fact: Gabbard is also the first-ever Hindu American to serve in Congress. 

Gabbard's father is a Catholic deacon, but her mother is a practicing Hindu, which was how Gabbard was initially introduced to her faith. The Congresswoman is very much a practicing Hindu as well; in this interview with India Abroad, Gabbard says that she's been "studying the Bhagavad Gita since childhood" and illuminates other details of her religious practice. 

3. You won't find Congressman Bobby Rush in Washington on too many Sundays. Why? Well, he is bi-vocational: congressman during the week, and pastor on the weekends, making him one of the only sitting members of Congress who pastors a church at the same time. 

Rush rushes home to Chicago from D.C. to preach in the pulpit and lead the congregation at the Beloved Community Christian Church in Chi-Town’s Englewood neighborhood, one of the poorest communities in the city. He also leads economic development initiatives through the church's Beloved Community Family Service's organization.

4. Congressman Justin Amash, the Michigan representative, is known for being a Tea Party firebrand, thorn-in-the-side of GOP leadership, and all-around Congressional gadfly. But what's not as well known is that Amash has some connections to high places—all the way to Syria, and the Antiochan Orthodox Church. 

Amash, son of a Syrian mother and Palestinian father, is an Orthodox Christian, having grown up in the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, whose head is the Syrian-based Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Patriarch John X Yazigi. The church is called "Antiochan" because it traces its roots all the way back to the Christian community founded in Antioch by the Apostles Peter and Paul. Amash is one of several Orthodox members of Congress, including Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA), Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), John Sarbanes (D-MD), and Dina Titus (D-NV), although not all of the Antiochan tradition. 

5. For atheists in America, Arizona Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema came into office with a (big?) bang, to reports that she would replace Pete Stark as the only declared nonbeliever in Congress. But the Congresswoman quickly walked those reports, and a supposed atheist identification, back, with her office saying simply, “Kyrsten believes the terms non-theist, atheist or nonbeliever are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character...She does not identify as any of the above.” But it's safe to say that somewhere in the agnostic, ‘spiritual-but-not-religious,’ relatively-secular mix is Congresswoman Sinema, adding to this religiously eclectic Congress.

6. If you see Congressman Andre Carson (D-IN) or Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) rush past you on a Friday without stopping to chitchat, don't take it personally; they're probably moving quickly to Jumu'ah, or Friday prayers. Carson, a Muslim convert who grew up in a Baptist household, and Ellison, a former Catholic who converted to Islam in college, are the only two Muslim Americans in Congress. Ellison used a Quran once owned by Thomas Jefferson in his official swearing-in ceremony, ushering in a new era of religion in Congress.  

7. Senator Ben Cardin told me last year about a strange encounter he had in grade school, going door-to-door collecting donations for the Jewish National Fund. One man opened the door and said that since he wasn't Jewish, he wouldn't be donating; Cardin was floored because, “I didn’t understand what the guy was saying—he was the first non-Jew I had ever met!” While Cardin's religious network has grown more diverse, he still takes his Orthodox Jewish faith seriously, regularly attending the largest Modern Orthodox congregation in America, the Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Pikesville, Maryland. There are many Jewish Americans in Congress, but Cardin is one of the few practicing Modern Orthodox. 

8. One hopes that when Congressman Rush Hold (D-NJ) retires at the end of this term, the prospects for world peace don't fade with him. Holt—known for being a rocket scientist and Jeopardy champ—is also the only declared Quaker in Congress, according to Pew Forum data. Perhaps the Quakers can persuade a few other members to join their circle of Friends (although they probably won’t be doing so at gunpoint). 

9. You might assume that Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Congressman Robert Goodlatte (R-VA) are good ol' Southern Baptists since they represent large swaths of rural Texas and Virginia respectively. But, you'd be wrong. Smith and Goodlatte are Congress's only Christian Scientists, following the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy, who founded the church in 1879. 

10. If Congressman Hank Johnson, the representative from Georgia's 4th Congressional District and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, seems pretty chilled out to you—maybe even a little zen—there’s a reason: Johnson is a practicing Buddhist. The only African American Buddhist in Congress, Johnson practices Soka Gakkai Buddhism, a Japanese Buddhist movement with 12 million adherents around the world. Johnson's Buddhism has served him well in the rough and tumble world of Congress; he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "I don't get carried [away] when things are going great‚ and don't get carried [away] when things are going badly, because both of those things are going to happen...therefore, the middle path is the best place to be."