Way Downstream

Michael Metzger

According to Pew Research Center, 91 percent of the members of the new session of Congress, the 115th, identified as Christian. This reminds us politics is way downstream.

Many political commentators like to describe politics as “downstream” from culture. It doesn’t change culture as much as reflects it. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said “it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society.”

The 115th Congress seems to support Moynihan’s point. Despite the steady decline in the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian, the proportion of congressional members who say they are Christian has remained very close to what it was in the early 1960s. This is according to a new report released by Pew Research Center. It found that 91 percent of the members of the new session of Congress identified as Christian. More than half a century ago, in 1961, that figure was 95 percent.

This is not what’s happening in the U.S. population. According to the General Social Survey, a survey of Americans that has been taken regularly since 1972, the percentage of Christians among the population is declining, particularly among young adults. The contrast with Congress “is really is telling, especially with the changing U.S. population,” says Aleksandra Sandstrom, the author of the Pew report.

It sure is. It’s telling us that politics is way downstream. Congress looks about the same as it did in 1961, while the religious orientation of the U.S. population is rapidly changing. A quarter of the U.S. population has become religious Nones in just 10 years. By 2030, Nones will likely be 50 percent. Yet there has been only a tiny shift in Congress. In the 114th Congress in 2015, 491 members were Christian. In the 115th Congress today, 485 members are Christian. Hardly a shift.

Gregory A. Smith, an associate director of research at Pew, said that it was hard to say why the religious composition of Congress had stayed so steady. Perhaps it’s not as hard as he thinks. Downstream institutions always lag behind general population trends.

The lag in politics reminds us to go upstream to change the world. Business. The arts. The Early Church did this. Early Christians were drawn from “urban circles of well-situated artisans, merchants, and members of the liberal professions,” writes historian Heinz Kreissig.[1] Look at the Middle Ages. Early medieval missionaries went upstream. “The most easily identifiable and consistently pursued element of strategy,” writes Richard Fletcher, was “to work from the top downwards. If you can convert the directing elite then those who are subject to its direction will follow the lead given.”[2]

Politicians are mostly subject to cultural direction. By 2030, Congress is likely to more closely reflect the rise of religious Nones. I’m not saying ignore politics. I am however suggesting we invest our time and talents in upstream endeavors that are more likely to change the world.

[1] Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 214.

[2] Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997), p. 236.


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  1. While I’m certain you’ve considered this, I can’t help but ask: How do know the politicians are actually practicing Christians, not just veiled religious nones who don’t want to leave the box empty or sound too radical?

  2. Good point, and this explains why Christians, with large numbers nationally and even over representation in politics and some civic roles, have had decreased influence in the actual lives of emerging generations. The question I have is how does this work out in smaller scales…a region, a city, a community?

  3. Good point, Susan. Obviously, I don’t know. It’s pretty much impossible to know who are actually practicing Christians, so we have to take these men and women at their word.

    I have a hunch that as the phrase “religious None” becomes more normative we’ll see more elected officials self-identify as such (if they are actually religious Nones).

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