The Tennessee Legislature Is Overwhelmingly Christian. Do Voters Care?

Jan 10, 2017

The question is not whether a legislator in Tennessee identifies as a Christian. It's what kind of Christian they are.

Nearly one-third of lawmakers identify their religious affiliation as Baptist, and the rest say they're from another Protestant denomination or they're Catholic. Only one mentions another faith: Nashville Rep. John Ray Clemmons, who says in his official bio that his family is a mix of Christian and Jewish.

That's not completely out of line with Tennesseans as a whole. Four of five of the state's adults say they're Christians.

But Paul Stob, an assistant professor of communications at Vanderbilt University who studies religious rhetoric, doesn't think voters really care whether lawmakers have the same faith as them.

"My guess is that it has less to do with the consciousness of the voters. Voters are less thinking about that than the people who make up state parties and who sort of choose or encourage certain people to run over other people," he says.

Stob says the legislature could eventually become more religiously diverse as Tennessee itself adds more non-Christians.

According to the Pew Research Center, the largest such group in Tennessee right now is people who say they have no religious affiliation whatsoever. Fourteen percent of the state's adults fall into that category.

The rest of Tennesseans belong to other religions, led by Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. None of those faiths represents more than 1 percent of the state's population.

Stob predicts that any change would come slowly, since the one thing voters do show a preference for is sending incumbents back to the Capitol once they've been elected.

Top Faiths of Tennessee Legislators

House (99 members)

  1. Baptists, 39
  2. Christian (unspecified, non-denominational and interdenominational), 20
  3. Methodist, 10
  4. Church of Christ, 9
  5. Presbyterian, 6

Senate (33 members)

  1. Christian (unspecified), 7
  2. Methodist, 5
  3. Baptist, 4
    Church of Christ, 4
    Episcopal, 4
    Presbyterian, 4