‘New US Congress religiously more diverse than ever`

While Congress remains majority Protestant, the institution is far less so today than it was 50 years ago.

Washington: The new US Congress, started its two-year term this week, is religiously more diverse than ever before -- it includes the nation`s first Buddhist Senator and the first Hindu in either chamber of the Congress, a new analysis from the Pew Research said.

"The new, 113th Congress includes the first Buddhist to serve in the Senate, the first Hindu to serve in either chamber and the first member of Congress to describe her religion as "none," continuing a gradual increase in religious diversity that mirrors trends in the country as a whole," the Pew Research said in a report.

While Congress remains majority Protestant, the institution is far less so today than it was 50 years ago, when nearly three-quarters of the members belonged to Protestant denominations, it said.

Catholics have seen the biggest gains among the 533 members. Catholics picked up seven seats, for a total of 163, raising their share to just over 30 percent, Pew said adding that Protestants and Jews experienced the biggest declines in numerical terms.

Jews now hold 33 seats (six percent), six fewer than in the 112th Congress, where Jews held 39 seats (seven percent).

Protestants lost eight seats, though they continue to occupy about the same proportion of seats (56 percent) as in the 112th Congress (57 percent).

In addition, the Protestant share of each political party in the new Congress is about the same as in the 112th; roughly seven-in-ten Republicans are Protestants, compared with fewer than half of Democrats, Pew said.

However, the members sworn in for the first time in 2013 are less Protestant than the group that entered in 2011; 48 percent are Protestant, compared with 59 percent of previous freshmen, it said. Mormons continue to hold 15 seats (about three percent), the same as in previous Congress, it added.

According to Pew due in part to electoral gains in recent years, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus now are represented in Congress in closer proportion to their numbers in the US adult population. But some small religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, are not represented at all in Congress, it added.

"Hawaii Democrat Tulsi Gabbard is the first Hindu in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. Gabbard, an Iraq War veteran who has served on the Honolulu City Council and in the Hawaii state legislature, represents Hawaii’s 2nd congressional district," it said.

Gabbard takes over the seat held in the 112th Congress by Congressman Mazie K Hirono, who on November 6, 2012, became the first Buddhist elected to the Senate.

In 2006, Hirono and Congressman Hank Johnson from Georgia became the first Buddhists to be elected to the House. Four years later, they were joined by a third Buddhist member, Colleen Hanabusa from Hawaii. Johnson and Hanabusa were re-elected to serve in the 113th Congress.

The first Muslim to serve in the House or the Senate, Congressman Keith Ellison was elected in 2006 from Minnesota. Congressman Andre Carson from Indiana became the second Muslim in Congress when he won a special election in 2008. In 2012, Michigan Democrat Syed Taj lost his bid to become the third Muslim member of Congress. Ellison and Carson were re-elected.

Pew said members of other small religious groups started serving in Congress more than a century ago. The first Jewish member arrived in 1845, when Lewis Charles Levin of the American Party began representing Pennsylvania in the House.

The first Mormon in Congress, John Milton Bernhisel, began serving in 1851, after Utah was officially recognized as a territory.

California Democrat Dalip Singh Saund, the first and so far only Sikh to serve in Congress, served three terms starting in 1957.

Congressman Pete Stark from California, a Unitarian who joined Congress in 1973, became the first member of Congress to publicly declare, in 2007, that he does not believe in a Supreme Being. He lost his re-election bid in 2012, Pew said.