Why are Catholics Overrepresented in Congress?

By Paul A. Djupe

Historian Adam Laats over at iloveyoubutyouregoingtohell.org posted an interesting puzzle he picked up from a Pew report on the religious makeup of the new Congress. It may come as a surprise, but members of Congress do not exactly look like the nation in its religious makeup. Below I’ve plotted the ratio of the portion of seats held compared to the portion of the population from Pew’s data – figures below 1 suggest underrepresentation, while figures above 1 suggest overrepresentation. Christians tend to be overrepresented (ratio of 1.3), but they are a very heterogeneous group. Mainline Protestants tend to be overrepresented, while evangelicals tend to be underrepresented. Aside from Jews (ratio=3.2), other non-Christian groups are quite underrepresented.

It made sense to Adam why Episcopalians might have more seats than their share of the population. They have high levels of education and income and a tradition of civic involvement. But why are Catholics overrepresented? Catholics occupy 30.5 percent of congressional seats, while they only constitute 21 percent of the population.

Some responses on Twitter emphasized their set of interests that could serve to mobilize candidates at high rates. There is no doubt that some of that is true. There are staunch pro-life Catholic representatives. My childhood home in Chicago was once included in Henry Hyde’s district so I’m well aware of this; Hyde was famous for trying to attach the “Hyde Amendment” banning abortion to almost any legislation he could; he was arguably also famous for prosecuting the Clinton impeachment while having had an extramarital affair himself.

I don’t think that this explanation holds too much water. For one, there are very, very few Catholics in the US who hold policy positions upholding a consistent ethic of life. There are Catholics all over the map, as we will see. They are conservative as well as liberal. They are pro-life as well as pro-choice. They are Democrats and Republicans.

Instead, I think the explanation has more to do with organization and geography. Whether by discrimination or choice, groups that settled in close proximity tend to do quite well in elections. Think of the big city party machines that dominated Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Kansas City, and others. While not all of them were Catholic dominated, many of them were (and Irish Catholic to boot). But groups did not have to be large to be well represented. Jews and Episcopalians are classic examples of relatively small groups with outsized presence. Jews, especially, mirrored the Catholic pattern of living in communities near the synagogue, which combined with a social theology amenable to civic participation (see Ken Wald’s new book) netted seats in Congress.

The other advantage that Catholics have is their geographic extent and concentration. Catholics dominate vast swaths of the US and are the predominant faith in quite a few different ethnic communities. Easily visible in the map below of congressional districts represented by a Catholic, Catholic representatives are highly concentrated in the Northeast, industrial Midwest, agricultural Midwest, parts of the (Spanish and French) South, as well as the largely Hispanic West. Then there are some ones you might not expect, such as William Clay, who is black and has long represented St. Louis City in the Missouri-First.

Catholics have long been noted as a swing vote group – they have more or less split their votes in presidential elections for the last several decades. That doesn’t mean they are independent, but that they are incredibly diverse in their politics. The map below shows that quite clearly, following the regional and local patterns of party control. In the 116th, 62% of Catholic representatives are Democrats; it may not look like that from the map since urban districts are small and harder to see. They can be found largely but not exclusively in urban areas and liberal states. Republicans tend to be in rural areas and conservative states, though there are always exceptions to these rules.

It is predictable that the political scientist runs to “organization” to help explain political phenomena. Unorganized interests, even incredibly widely held ones, simply lose out to interests that may be unpopular but that are organized. What’s particularly interesting about the Catholic Church, at least to me, is how unorganized it is. No one at this point would say that Catholic adherents are on the same page as the hierarchy (the hierarchy isn’t either). This is not to say that Catholic adherents do not find religious inspiration for their politics, but it is to say that they do not find the same inspiration as other Catholics. Therefore, what is left that unites them is geography and concentration. In New Mexico, there are not many other games in town, so representatives are quite likely to be Catholic. Put another way, we should be aware that religions cast long shadows that may have influence on modern society even when they no longer have the power to drive that influence.

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University Political Science, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog (see his list of posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.

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