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Counting Catholics in Congress -- an obsolete exercise

I purchased my copy of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics (only $90) Tuesday and immediately started browsing through the profiles of members of Congress. As always, I found myself focusing on the religion of the senators and representatives, a detail that isn’t always easy to find in official biographies. In particular, I was checking to see who was a Roman Catholic.

This peculiarity originated in my Catholic childhood in the 1960s, when Catholics were still thought of (including by themselves) as an exotic minority group. At my Sacred Heart grammar school, the nuns and the textbooks overcompensated for this sense of marginalization by hyping the contribution of Catholics to American history. Protestants might think that John Paul Jones was the father of the American Navy, but we knew it was the papist John Barry. And did you know that St. Robert Bellarmine, a Jesuit cardinal who died in 1621, was an unacknowledged influence on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?

In 2013, a search for Catholics in government produces an embarrassment of riches. Overall, according to the Pew Research Center, more than 30% of those elected to the current Congress are Catholic, a slightly higher than the number of Catholics in the population.

But Catholics punch above their weight in Washington. Six of the nine Supreme Court justices, including the chief justice, are Catholics (the other three are Jews). And while Barack Obama is a Protestant, the first four people in the presidential line of succession are Catholics: Vice President Joe Biden, Speaker of the House John A. Boehner, Senate President Pro Tem Patrick Leahy and Secretary of State John F. Kerry. (The fifth, Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew, is an Orthodox Jew.)

The nuns of my childhood would rejoice about this infiltration of the Protestant ascendancy. But the reaction of contemporary Americans, Catholics included, is: “So what?” At a time of almost obsessive interest in diversity and a government that “looks like America,” voters are much less likely to focus on a candidate’s religion than they were when John F. Kennedy was running for president. In my home state of Pennsylvania, the governor and both U.S. senators are Irish Catholics. If Protestants feel disenfranchised by this state of affairs, I haven’t heard about it.

Jews are another historically marginalized minority who do pretty well in politics. Jews now make up about 6% of Congress, but that is still triple the percentage of Jews in the general population. There are 10 Jewish senators (including both senators from California), down from 11 with the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey.

Increasingly, Americans are willing to be represented -- and judged -- by people who follow a religion different from theirs. Contrast that phenomenon with the widely held view, central to the debate about the Voting Rights Act, that racial minorities feel better represented by members of their own race.

My counting of Catholics in Congress is an outdated exercise; will there come a time when African American or Latino voters will feel equally silly about tallying up the number of political leaders from those groups in the Almanac of American Politics? I hope so.


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Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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