The 2018 midterm elections resulted in historic victories for minority communities. In January, the nation's first Muslim congresswomen and openly gay governor, as well as a handful of black, Latina and Native American representatives, will be sworn in.
Some of these changes will be more welcome than others, according to a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey on political representation. Americans are more skeptical of the benefits of electing non-Christian or LGBT leaders than electing people from racial and ethnic minority groups.
Forty-four percent of U.S. adults say electing more people from racial and ethnic minority groups would make things in the country better. Just 24 percent say the same about electing non-Christian people of faith, PRRI reported.
Christians are even less excited about non-Christian elected officials, according to a religious breakdown of the data provided to the Deseret News.
Compared to 24 percent of Americans overall, only 5 percent of white evangelical Protestants, 16 percent of white mainline Protestants and 18 percent of Catholics and black Protestants say having more people from non-Christian religious groups in office would make America a better place. Four percent of white evangelical Protestants, 15 percent of white mainline Protestants and 19 percent of Catholics say the same about electing more nonreligious Americans.
This skepticism of non-Christians stems from a variety of factors, according to political scientists and religion scholars. Christians, like all voters, tend to prefer elected officials who share their values. Additionally, candidates from minority faith groups are often Democrats, while most evangelical Christians and around half of mainline Protestant and Catholic groups identify as or lean Republican.
"Evangelicals may be looking at the non-Christian label and thinking of the political label," said Kevin Singer, co-director of Neighborly Faith, an organization working to improve evangelical Christians' relationships with other faith groups.
The survey shows it's more than racism or discrimination standing in the way of further diversifying political leadership. Partisanship and religious values can also be obstacles, which is why it's important to keep cultivating friendships across religious and political lines, experts said.
Artice VI of the Constitution bans religious tests for office, ensuring that federal law won't stop a Muslim, Jew or atheist from serving in Congress.
But the Constitution can't keep individual voters from imposing religious tests, and it shouldn't surprise us that people do, said Daniel Dreisbach, a constitutional law and history scholar at American University in Washington, D.C.
"As an individual citizen, I can go into the voting booth and choose to vote only for people of my particular religious denomination," Dreisbach said. "People take their values, including their religious values, into the voting booth."
That latter point is why political candidates so often talk about their religious background on the campaign trail, he noted. They want to make a connection with fellow believers.
"People vote for people who sort of think, act and look like themselves," Dreisbach said.
At the very least, they're likely to prefer a candidate who shares their faith, sexual orientation or ethnic background over a similar candidate who doesn't, said Leonie Huddy, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
"Christians might be especially likely to support a Christian candidate compared to a non-Christian candidate if both are espousing the same values," she said.
Christian voters may worry about the morality of candidates who practice religions they don't understand or no religion at all. Evangelical Christians, in particular, often assume that only someone from their faith community will share and protect their interests, Singer said.
"There's a sense that if an elected official does not know Christ, does not have a legacy of Christian practice and is not socialized in Christian norms, then they couldn't possibly be able to lead a society that appreciates Christian values and protects conservative Christian expression," he said.
This desire to protect Christian interests helps explain why around 8 in 10 white evangelicals voted for President Donald Trump, despite his past moral indiscretions, as the Deseret News reported last year. Trump didn't regularly attend church, but he claimed the Christian label and formed valuable partnerships with evangelical leaders.
Forty-nine percent of white evangelical Christians believe electing more people from non-Christian religious groups would make the U.S. worse, compared to 25 percent of white mainline or black protestants and 17 percent of Catholics, PRRI reported.
Evangelical Christians stood out from other believers in the survey on more than this response. For example, they were nearly twice as likely as other Christians to say electing more nonreligious or LGBT officials would make America worse.
Rob Griffin, PRRI's acting direct of research, said it's not just moral concerns driving these results. Partisanship also affects how people feel about elected officials from historically underrepresented groups.
"Politics were at play in people's responses, even though we're looking at results from a religious angle," he said. "Partisan affiliation has a strong effect on people's feelings about a lot of things in the world."
Most white evangelical Christians are Republicans, and Republicans are more negative about elected officials from minority groups.
Forty percent of Republicans say electing more non-Christian individuals would make things in America worse, compared to 16 percent of Democrats, the survey showed.
Because of the pull of partisanship, it's not fair to say that anyone skeptical about electing more non-Christians hates Muslims or Jews. As Singer noted, respondents could have had political stereotypes on their mind, not religious ones.
Commonly held political stereotypes in the U.S. include that all LGBT people are Democrats, women are more liberal than men and blacks are Democrats, Huddy said.
These stereotypes are becoming more problematic, said Huddy, from Stony Brook. People draw battle lines between social groups, assuming that evangelical Christians and atheists or Latinos and white southerners never share political interests.
"We're so divided on the basis of these social groupings now," she said.
This mindset complicates efforts to bridge divides between social groups. For example, as the Neighborly Faith team works to improve relations between evangelical Christians and Muslims, they have to correct harmful political assumptions as well as moral ones, Singer said.
Research like the recent PRRI survey make Singer and his co-director, Chris Stackaruk, feel the urgency of their work. It's not right to assume that only evangelical Christians leaders can make the U.S. a better place, they said.
They hope to reduce partisanship and tribal mentalities through grassroots organizing. They're training young evangelicals to lead outreach efforts to Muslim students on their campuses.
"Through person-to-person interaction, hearts can change. That's how you bridge divides," Stackaruk said.
It'll be a difficult process, since human behavior is hard to change. Since the time of our Founding Fathers, Americans have struggled to live up to constitutional ideals like imposing no religious test for office.
"I think this is a remarkably unremarkable phenomenon that we're talking about," Dreisbach said.