The 116th Congress is more religiously diverse and less Christian than the previous one, even though representation from states like South Carolina saw no shifts.
The new Congress includes the first two Muslim women ever to serve in the House of Representatives, along with four new Jewish members, one additional Muslim and a Unitarian Universalist, the Pew Research Center reported.
Religious leaders are glad to see the government becoming more diverse.
The Rev. Nancy Pelligrini is the assistant minister of the Unitarian Church in Charleston, a congregation that allows for theological diversity and beliefs.
Here, members have a wide range of beliefs and are bound by their search for meaning and purpose.
Pelligrini said she's pleased to to see Unitarian Universalist representation in Congress and hopes to see more diversity in the government moving forward.
“I’m definitely pleased that it’s becoming more religiously diverse to better represent the religiously diversity of our country. Since its founded on the concept of the freedom of religion, as Unitarian Universalists, we include all faiths. We would definitely applaud more diversity in Congress.”
Even with the rise in religious diversity, Congress still does not properly reflect the population. Though the percent of Christians in Congress dropped from 91 to 88, the faith is still overrepresented. Only 71 percent of adults in the country identify as followers of Jesus Christ.
What's particularly notable is the underrepresentation of the "unaffliated" population. While 23 percent of adults claim to be not be affiliated with any religion, less than one percent of Congress falls in that category.
Dr. Matthew Cressler, assistant professor of religious studies at the College of Charleston, said one reason for this is people link moral character to religious identification. This, combined with the misconception many have that the country was founded on religious concepts, can lead people to shy away from nonreligious candidates.
“One would think algorithmicly, there’s going to be increased representation from people who (are) not religious," Cressler said. “It seems clear that voters are reluctant to elect people who are unaffiliated."
This is particularly true in South Carolina. Congressional representatives remain exclusively Christian in the Palmetto State, even though 19 percent of the population say they don't identify with any faith.
On one hand, this is not surprising considering the the state's reputation as conservative, Bible Belt territory. But some say that a change could eventually come.
Herb Silverman is the founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, which consists of atheists, agnostics and skeptics who meet regularly for conversation, potluck and book clubs.
He thinks the rise in religious "nones" could eventually shape the political landscape.
“I’m cautiously optimistic because politicians will go along with what their constituency wants," Silverman said.
Silverman added that nationally, many atheist politicians are in the closet. That's why some political leaders helped form the Freethought Caucus to "promote public policy based on reason and science."
Religion experts aren't holding their breath, though. They noted the decline in the number of white evangelical protestants in South Carolina, and the rise in black and Hispanic protestants. This could make room for more minorities who identify as Christian making it into public office.
"If that trend continues and you are hoping to have a religiously representative Congress for South Carolinians, you’d expect to see more nonwhite Christian representatives before you’d see any unaffiliated representatives," Cressler said.