According to the Pew Research Center, just under 88% of members of Congress identify as Christian (87.8%) compared with 63% of the U.S. population. In addition, less than 5% of the Congress identify as religiously unaffiliated (e.g., humanist or unwilling to say) compared with 33% of adults in the U.S. today. **
Let the findings of this research sink in for a moment: Congress is significantly more “Christian” and way more religiously aligned than the general population of the United States of America! In fact, according to what congress members profess about themselves—in most any city, town or village across the country percentage-wise fewer of the people seek to align with Jesus, his teachings, and example than in the Senate and House of Representatives.
Here’s a thought and prayer experiment. Let’s assume the polling conclusions accurately reflect the posture, attitude, and priorities of the elected leaders of Congress. That is, assume Congress is at least as Christian in profession than any city, town, village, or rural area across the country. And assume, given the current trends, in another five or ten years the halls of Congress will be one of the most “well-churched” places anywhere.
Imagine it! Over the next years, when individuals and even churches want to see what it is like to lead Christianly one trusted option will be to observe congressional leaders going about their work, doing such thigs as:
- Seeking to legislate effectively not simply what is “right” but what encourages and invites (rather than coerces or demands) our citizens to respect people and prioritize them over things;
- Pursuing the wellbeing of all people who live among us as neighbors; providing as much opportunity as possible to all sectors and segments of our population;
- Assuring safe and secure environments in cities, towns, villages, and rural areas throughout the land;
- Recognizing that for various reasons not all of us have the same opportunities and capacities and then working to assist those who have less of these than others;
- Protecting the weak and vulnerable, especially those without voice or agency to act for themselves;
- Designing and implementing systems and structures that allow people to act on their principles and convictions without denying the same to others who disagree with them;
- Cultivating intelligent compassion toward many places and peoples who suffer around the world, and promoting efforts to bring relief and resources that empower them to help themselves;
- Responding to adversaries and enemies in balanced and measured ways deterring threat while showing better ways to pursue their interests than violence and aggression; and
- Disincentivizing hostility and aggression globally by incentivizing U.S. individuals, organizations, corporations and non-profits to share intellectual, human and materials resources with under-resourced people-groups and nations. ***
Of course, this is by no means easy to do. Our Congressional leaders belong to different political parties, prioritize the concerns common to us all in different ways, and in varying degrees have come to their congressional leadership with the help of different alliances and interest groups. In many cases, other than their remarkably common way they identify with the Person of Christ (some 88% of them members/adherents of Christian churches!) they may have little else in common. Yet, as difficult as it seems, just imagine that common allegiance to the person of Christ somehow, at least sometimes, would indeed be sufficient for them to work together, problem-solve together, and achieve together such things as I’ve listed above!
Granted, a common allegiance to the Person of Christ does not guarantee they will all agree with one another, nor that when they disagree they will avoid offending one another, nor even that every matter can be resolved. Even so, actual allegiance to the One we confess to be “Prince of Peace,” who blesses those who make peace, and calls us to forgive one another freely as Christ has forgiven us—such allegiance would or should trump all else! At the least, it would seem appropriate for us to imagine that such coming together, finding common ground, and acting for the good of others becomes possible to the degree that allegiance to the Person of Christ truly prevails. So, just imagine it!
One of the values of so-called thought experiments is they can help you get outside yourself and your typical ways of thinking so you can see things you might not see otherwise. Here are some of the things this particular experiment helps me see.
Clearly, membership in a church, even a good one (however we understand that) does not in itself guarantee one is a “Christian” or the same kind of “Christian.” Just as clearly, the term “Christian” has no generally agreed upon meaning when used in common discourse. To some degree, congressional respondents understand the term in different ways. I do not doubt that respondents are telling the truth—“This is how I identify myself religiously,”—but I suspect the truth they’re telling may have little to do with how they serve and lead as members of Congress.
Originally followers of Jesus were tagged with the name “Christian” by their opponents (see Acts 11; 1 Peter 4:16 for the only use of “Christian in the N.T.). They were called “Christians” because they shaped their lives around Jesus whom they called their “Christ” (or Messiah), because they accepted and endeavored to follow the teachings and example of this “Christ” often against the social, cultural and religious party lines of their time. And they did so even if it cost them dearly. So, their adversaries ridiculed them as “Christians,” which meant “little—or wannabe—Christs.”
Today it works quite differently. In common use, to be “Christian” is to identify in some way with a Church that belongs to the historical line of those first followers of Jesus. In this usage, what it means to be Christian will be determined by the church with which one associates and the degree to which one embraces whatever that church teaches. Thus, we cannot assume any particular meaning or reality when hearing that a Congress member is “Christian.”
Therefore, what the Pew Research reflects is not necessarily encouraging. But it is helpful. Here are three ways.
First, at the end of the thought-experiment, it seems more impossible to me that our Congressional leaders would or could see from the others’ perspective, hear opposing views, look for or create common ground, and discover ways to govern that empower people to live well, or at least better in the future than now. Given the current realities, this is quite beyond merely human capacity.
Still, this is helpful because many of us approach elections and governmental processes as though electing the “right” people is the key. But if 88% of our legislators are “Christian” and still unable to rise above partisanship in the interest of doing as much good as possible, especially for the neediest among us, we should adjust our expectations. Merely human governance will always disappoint. Ultimately, the governance we need cannot be elected. It can only be given and received. And the good news is that such governance has been given in Immanuel; indeed, “The Government shall be upon his shoulders,” (Isa. 9:6-7; Luke 1:31-33), even if today’s self-identifying “Christians” in Congress fail to realize or act in light of it.
Second, if 88% of the members of the Senate and House profess to be Christian and yet are hopelessly partisan so that every attempt to govern invariably leads to another round of fighting, then it should be clear where the problem lies and where the makings of solution might be found. Who is responsible for clarifying what it means to be Christian? It is not members and leaders of Congress; It is members and leaders of Church. The Pew Research revealing the “Christian” majority in Congress should be a wakeup call to churches everywhere. No one can think seriously think that the “Christian” presence documented in Congress represents the best our churches can do.
Third, churches everywhere might want to ask: What does it mean to identify with the person of Jesus the Christ? What sort of Person was He and is He? How can we learn and live—or learn to live—in His ways, and how can we align ourselves with Him so that His ways become our ways, whatever the circumstances of our lives and the challenges we face? It seems to me if we want to change things in Congress, we might begin in our churches to pray, plan, and work to send them Christians whose lives are themselves clear and more compelling answers to these questions.
*** This list is not the main point, just my suggestions as to how allegiance to Jesus might shape important functions of the governing authorities in Congress.
Picture take by Syed F Hashemi