RELIGION ON CAPITOL HILL: Myths and Realities by Peter L. & Dorothy L. Williams Benson


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What does Congress believe in? This careful statistico-philosophical study reaches the (perhaps predictable) conclusion that the Senate and House mirror the religious patterns of the country as a whole; its real point, however, is to challenge various Fundamentalist canards and popular illusions. To wit: that the Congress is crawling with secular humanists, agnostics, and atheists (not a single atheist reared his or her ugly head during this survey); that conservatives are more religious than liberals; that when it comes to the crunch, religion doesn't really count in voting decisions; that Evangelicals on the Hill form a political monolith, closely allied with the New Right. Benson and Williams systematically give the lie to these notions. In 1980, they note, a majority of the members of Congress professed a belief in the divinity of Christ and life after death, while 24 percent claimed their faith had a ""major"" influence on their voting (56 percent said ""moderate,"" 19 percent said ""minor,"" and I percent said ""none""). Elsewhere we learn that the host of congressional ""religionists"" falls into six categories--""legalistic"" (15 percent), ""integrated"" (14 percent), ""self-concerned"" (29 percent); ""people-concerned"" (10 percent), ""nontraditional"" (9 percent), and ""nominal"" (22 percent), leaving I percent for that pesky ""none."" ""Self-concerned"" lawmakers, it turns out, are largely conservative, and their ""people-concerned"" colleagues (outnumbered almost 3 to 1!) are liberal. All these figures and many, many more were obtained through face-to-face interviews with 80 randomly selected but typical (and anonymous) legislators. Here, if anywhere, is the Achilles heel of this formidable research project: we never learn how its sample group was chosen. But Benson and Williams' findings sound reasonable, so even though they don't carry as much weight as an in-depth biographical-sociological analysis would, they do tell us something interesting about the ways Congress perceives itself.

Pub Date: Oct. 26th, 1982
Publisher: Harper & Row