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In Church, Members Leave Politics at the Door

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Members of Congress are rarely anonymous on Capitol Hill. They sport distinctive lapel pins, ride “Members Only” elevators and often face packs of reporters.

There’s at least one place in the neighborhood, though, where lawmakers can blend into the crowd: church. 

Many Members attend services at local churches while they’re in Washington, D.C. There, local religious leaders said, lawmakers are no different from the other faithful in the pews. 

“For the most part, when Members have come here, somebody else had to tell me they were Members,” said Andrew Walton, a pastor at Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church. “They just want to come and worship like everybody else.” 

“We try to see ourselves as a neighborhood church,” he continued. “It just so happens that the Congress and Supreme Court are the people in our neighborhood.” 

The Hill is a faithful place: Only six Members — about 1 percent — do not specify a religious affiliation, according to data collected by CQ Roll Call and the Pew Forum. The 112th Congress, like the U.S. public, is majority Protestant and about a quarter Catholic, the data show. Baptists and Methodists are the largest Protestant denominations in the new Congress, just as they are in the country as a whole. There are 39 Jews, 15 Mormons, three Buddhists, two Muslims and one Quaker in Congress. 

Because they often return to their home districts on the weekends, few Members have a regular place of worship near the Capitol. Those seeking immediate guidance can pay a visit to the chaplains elected by the House and Senate who lead prayers, organize Bible studies and officiate at weddings and funerals.  

Sometimes, though, lawmakers will join local congregations to celebrate their faith. 

Two churches are especially famous for their connections to Congress: St. Peter’s and St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill, which are often called the House and Senate Catholic churches, respectively, because of their locations on either side of the Capitol.  

“Any given Sunday, you never know who might be sitting in the pews,” Walton said. “Just occasionally, you’ll have a Member of the House who’s in town and comes in. ... It’s sporadic, and maybe its just a one-time thing.” 

Worshipping alongside such powerful — and partisan — individuals can present challenges to church leaders. Many work to avoid politically divisive topics such as tax policy or health care. 

“As a priest, my interest is in souls, not in votes,” said Father Carter Griffin of St. Peter’s.

They also consider the amount of time their parishioners already spend focusing on policy. 

“I find myself trying not to talk about politics as much because people live and breathe politics here,” Walton said. “We try to offer a place where people can have a break from it and a different perspective on it.”  

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