The Underrepresentation For Religious Nones

Congress, at least in theory, is supposes to represent their constituents. When looking at the religious make up of recent Congresses, one can conclude that certain affiliations are more represented than others. According to the Pew Research Center, 90.7% of members within the 115th Congress identified as Christians whereas only Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona identified as religiously unaffiliated (“Faith on the Hill”, 2017). This is a striking number as it means that American Religious Nones; those who are atheists, agnostics, or simply not affiliated with a specific organization; have a single representative in their federal government. Not only that but given that Pew also found that 23% of Americans identified as Religious Nones, they are being drastically underrepresented in the federal government (“Faith on the Hill”, 2017). Fast-forward to the current 116th Congress and the story is more of the same. Despite a historic number of women being elected, the overwhelming Christian majority in Congress holds strong at 88.2% and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema is still the sole representative of Religious Nones (“5 facts”, 2019). The question is, why does the disparity in the representation of Religious Nones persist? In my view, the representation disparity for Religious Nones persists in part due to institutional factors such as the historical effect of religious liberty on governance, the sway that churches hold in their communities, and the legitimacy that politicians get when partnering with churches.

Historically speaking, America has been at the forefront of religious liberty. Perhaps the most well-known way in which this has manifested is in the First Amendment of the Constitution, which restricts the government from both establishing and cracking down on the practicing of a religion. In theory, this would also protect the right of Religious Nones to not participate in any particular religion. So why do we see a disparity in representation despite having religious liberty instituted into our Constitution? Part of the answer lies in that the principle of religious liberty was not always around, specifically during the colonial era. For example, as Gill points out, there was a time when being able to vote in the New England colonies was contingent on being a good standing member of the local church (2008: 68). This had massive effects on how a community was run. The direction of the whole community was dictated by the values and preferences of the local church as any potential voters who would have gone against the church in other circumstances (i.e. Religious Nones) could easily be iced out in such a system. Because of this, leaders were forced to appeal strictly to those constituents who were in good standing with their church, which incentivized them to govern in a way that appealed not only to the people but also the church.

But what does a lack of religious liberty in the past have to do with the representation of Religious Nones today? Well, knowing about the early structure of governance is important, as any future institutions are going be born out of such a structure. If one thinks about it, any systemic roadblocks that make it harder for Religious Nones to win election have a direct impact on their representation in Congress. In this case, institutionalizing appeals to churches and church values early on in our nation’s history translated into a potential role in governance moving forward. If such a system continued exactly as it had, there would have been very little hope for equal religious representation specifically in New England and America may have never had any Religious Nones in office. The system did change though. An influx of immigrants with all sorts of religious backgrounds, the resulting religious diversity that made it harder to favor certain religions, as well as the need to keep the peace for the sake of trade among different religious denominations all prompted the need for religious liberty in America (Gill, 2008: 75). With these factors, a church’s absolute hold on the governance of a given community like in New England would have waned (Gill, 2008: 69-70). However, widespread religious liberty did not just do away with church influence. To put it in economic terms; because appeals to churches were institutionalized before religious liberty, a world after religious liberty was in place would not necessarily destroy the need for such appeals but would rather open up the market to making such appeals towards a variety of religious denominations. Potential politicians were thus freed up to appeal to any religion or none at all in theory. However, not appealing to a religious denomination would put one at a clear disadvantage.

This disadvantage stems from the fact that religious liberty did not eliminate existing support for religion, meaning that religious institutions still had sway in their communities when it comes to getting people elected. Religious Nones forgo such sway when they decide to not appeal to any particular religion. Running for office as a Religious None thus becomes much harder as they do not get access to a church’s (or other religious institution’s) communal sway. Depending on how religious the voting base is, this can greatly impact the electability and thus representation of Religious Nones in government. But how does this sway work? Generally, a church’s sway works on two fronts.

The first involves the churches having a track record of being able to sell credence goods effectively. As per Witham, a credence good is a good in which one does not have the ability to judge its quality while purchasing it (2010: 61). For a church, the version of religion that they practice acts a credence good in which they “sell” to others. People who decide to try out (or “consume”) religion for themselves do not know what the particular value of the experience is going to be beforehand. Running for office is another kind of credence good. When voters are deciding on who to support, they can only really look at the accounts of what candidates have done in the past, but they can never be sure how candidates are going to govern once in office. When it comes down to it religions and candidates need to convince people to “buy” their credence good, which is harder than it sounds. This is because you have to go off of faith and other people’s experiences with credence goods, rather than personal judgement, when deciding whether or not to “purchase” them (Witham, 2010: 61-65). Churches have been around for a long time and as such have inevitably gotten good at “selling” their religion, otherwise they would not be around today. Churches have used things like self-sacrifice and the building of elaborate places of worship to build trust that what they are selling is of genuine value (Witham, 2010: 62-64). A candidate could potentially use these ready-made channels to sell their own credence good of political candidacy. By doing this, candidates cut down on the need to build trust and support from zero, as long as they appeal to a specific church’s values. Choosing not to partner with religious institutions, like Religious Nones might, forces politicians to sell their candidacy through lesser known and potentially less-effective means.

Another front on which a church can use its sway to help get people elected is through directly appealing to likely voters who are already a part of their institution. It is no secret in America that older people tend to be more likely to vote in elections (Kurtzleben, 2017). Candidates therefore are incentivized to put more of a focus on the needs and values of older people in an attempt to win their elections. Such values would most certainly include religious values. The concept of religious capital helps to encapsulate why this is the case. In essence, religious capital refers to the accumulation of religious skills, connections, and knowledge over time (Witham, 2010: 37). People who have lived longer naturally tend to be more religious as they have had more opportunity to raise their religious capital and are closer to cashing in on religious adherence than say an 18-year-old (Witham, 2010: 38-39). Institutionally speaking, a candidate’s religious affiliation potentially would become more relevant the older the voting base gets. Hence, the absence of a clear religious affiliation can hurt Religious None candidates in the long run. The logic of religious capital not only helps to illustrate why older voters may be more supportive of religiously affiliated candidates, but also why the makeup of Congress leans heavily religiously affiliated. In addition to being supported by older and thus potentially more religious Americans, the average age in the US House and Senate are 57 and 61, respectively (Kurtzleben, 2017). Using the logic of religious capital, this would mean that politicians themselves are more likely to be religiously affiliated the older they become. A combination of the need to sell a credence good and the fact that religious capital accumulates over time gives churches a lot of sway in communities that politicians can then capitalize on.

Religious institutions can also be used to provide candidates with normative legitimacy. Not having normative legitimacy from a communal institution like a church can have negative effects on electability and thus representation of Religious Nones. This is the case because using normative legitimacy to win and keep office, something the church is good at providing given its history of selling credence goods, requires far less resources than buying votes via promises to maintain livelihoods (Gill, 48-50). It must be pointed out though that churches are not just some silent partner giving away legitimacy, they has interests of their own. The idea of a church-state bargain takes both of these factors into account. Essentially, when a church-state bargain is in the works a candidate who wants to tie themselves to a specific church to gain legitimacy also has to give the church something in return like government subsidies or perhaps government regulation of their rivals (Gill, 50). By doing this, churches can give legitimacy to politicians to get them into office and then when in office those politicians can affect legislation in favor of those same churches. Both parties end up happy and work together in a way that strengthens the church-state bond, making it that much harder for a Religious None to get elected. Voters who share the same religious affiliation as a candidate will also be affected by such an agreement. Considering that not only will politicians have to be accountable not only to the church going voters, but also the church and by extension a God, voters become more trusting of the them and thus more willing to vote for them. When religious affiliated voters, politicians, and institutions are all working in tandem; it is no wonder why Religious Nones see such a high degree of underrepresentation in the American Government.

The representation disparity of Religious Nones is due in part to institutional factors such as the early structure of American governance being influenced by church power, churches been able to help “sell” candidates and provide likely voter outreach, and religiously affiliated peoples/organizations working in tandem to the detriment of Religious Nones. Given the current system, it would seem as though Religious Nones will perpetually be at a disadvantage. If America wanted to fix the Religious None’s representation problem, a change to the system way be something to look into.

Works Cited

  1. Gill, Anthony. The Political Origins of Religious Liberty. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  2. Kurtzleben, Danielle. “Nonreligious Americans Remain Far Underrepresented in Congress.” NPR, 3 Jan. 2017, far-underrepresented-in-congress.
  3. Sandstrom, Aleksandra. “Faith on the Hill.” Pew Research Center, 3 Jan. 2017,
  4. Sandstrom, Aleksandra. “5 facts about the religious makeup of the 116th Congress.” Pew Research Center, 3 Jan. 2019, -the-religious-makeup-of-the-116th-congress/
  5. Witham, Larry. Marketplace of the Gods: How Economics Explains Religion. New York, Oxford University Press, 2010. 
07 July 2022
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