Charles M Blow presented an intriguing juxtaposition of statistics in the January 8 New York Times.  Titled “Religion and Representation,” his piece reflects on a Pew study of the religious identifications of the new congress.

Blow’s intent was to reflect on the whole area of doubt, and the fact that he, younger people, and many others, are now feeling increasingly emboldened to declare themselves “undecided” in the area of religion.  In recent studies, that category, the “nones,” is now over 16%.  As he points out, it doesn’t mean they are all Atheists or Agnostics.  As my language indicates, I think it is more a matter of social conformism (or social non-conformism in this case) than it is a case of active identity as a resistor to religion of some kind.  No matter what it is, it is important, and a measure of whatever processes of “secularization” may be underway today.

Blow notes that, for those seeking elective office, it isn’t possible to officially “non-believe.”  Instead, there is the widely-shared assumption that, no matter what the formal identification for political purposes, many public figures don’t really care that much about formal faith.  Many (including me) have their doubts about Ronald Reagan, but he’s an example of where it didn’t matter very much to many of the conservative faithful (those who presumably should care the most).  The converse was true with Clinton,  who seemed pretty objectively religions, but for whom his religious bona fides were not widely accepted in those sectors of the electorate who are themselves most “religious.”

Lots of big questions here, worthy of careful discussion, and very under-represented in journalism about politics.  What does it mean to say you have a faith?  Should it matter?  To whom does it matter?  Is it really a “private” or “personal” matter when it seems so important that political figures have a faith of some kind?

The graphic that accompanied the Blow piece opens an even more intriguing and perhaps profound issue.  That is the stunning increase in the number of Catholics serving in Congress.  By far the largest increase and the largest number.

There has been some commentary about the parallel phenomenon on the Supreme Court. American Catholics have clearly long since  passed into the mainstream, by these measures.  It goes without saying that that is a good thing.

But, combined with our relative lack of a robust, consensual public discourse of religion, one wonders.

Because we can’t talk about it (its private, remember?) we can’t find common languages of it in relation to politics and public purpose. So, we have no idea whether and how this matters, and our news media and our pundits are not helping us figure it all out.

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