The newly started Congress has 31 United Methodists — 17 Republicans and 14 Democrats. Six of the denomination’s members serve in the Senate and 25 in the House.
However, the total marks a decrease of seven from the 116th Congress, largely because of retirements. Retiring United Methodists include former Sens. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, and Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican. Other retirees are former Reps. Rob Woodall, a Georgia Republican; Phil Roe, a Tennessee Republican; David Loebsack, an Iowa Democrat; and Texas Republican Pete Olson.
In addition, three United Methodists came up short at the ballot box. Former Rep. Steve Watkins of Kansas was defeated in a Republican primary, and former Sen. Doug Jones, an Alabama Democrat, lost his bid for re-election. Most recently, former senator and Georgia Republican David Perdue did not prevail in the Jan. 5 runoff.
Those departures outnumber the additions of Texas Republican Rep. Pete Sessions, a former Congress member who won a seat from a different district; Texas Republican Rep. Troy Nehls and Rep. Nikema Williams, the Georgia Democrat who won the late Rep. John Lewis’s old seat in Atlanta.
About half of United Methodist members represent four states: Seven from Texas and three each from Florida, Georgia and Ohio. Seventeen of the 50 states have at least one United Methodist member.
They join a U.S. Congress where nearly 9-in-10 members identify as Christian, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. That’s significantly higher than the general U.S. population, where about two-thirds identify as Christian.
While the number of Protestants in Congress has held relatively steady in recent years, those who do not specify a particular denomination has more than doubled since the election of 2008. Pew reports that 96 Congress members (18%) identify themselves simply as Protestants or as Christians. That compares to 39 members in the 111th Congress that opened 12 years ago.
Overall, United Methodists rank fifth in congressional religious affiliations behind members who are Catholic, “unspecified” Protestant, Baptist and Jewish.
They come to their office at a challenging time for the United States as a whole and Congress in particular after a mob stormed the Capitol building on Jan. 6.
While United Methodists are fewer in number, one already caused controversy days before the assault.
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, a Democrat from Missouri and ordained United Methodist elder, delivered the opening prayer of this congressional session on Jan. 3. He spurred criticism from some Republicans and United Methodist traditionalists after he closed that prayer with a multi-faith invocation of God, that named the Hindu God Brahma, and then ended with the words “Amen and ‘A-woman.’”
The word “amen” is Hebrew for “so be it.”
Cleaver told the Kansas City Star he intended the final words of his prayer as a pun to recognize the record number of women serving in the new Congress. He also urged people to listen to the content of his prayer before the controversial final few words.
“May we model community healing, control our tribal tendencies and quicken our spirit that we may feel Thy priestly presence even in moments of heightened disagreement,” he prayed.
United Methodists also sit in four governors’ mansions. They include Republicans Kim Reynolds of Iowa, Eric Holcomb of Indiana and Tate Reeves of Mississippi as well as Tom Wolf, Democrat in Pennsylvania.
Albert J. Menendez is a freelance political writer who has specialized in the interactions between religion and government since 1972.
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