11 November 2012

Religious Diversity On Rise On Congress

The U.S. House of Representatives has two new members who don't identify as Christians (and lost one) as a the result of last week's election, the U.S. Senate also has two new members who don't identify as Christians. Defining what these members do believe is rather more complicated. Mormon's meanwhile, have been common on Capital Hill for a while.

The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, is a Mormon; there have been Mormon members of the cabinet; and there are 15 Mormons in Congress. . . .

For the real underdog story in the elections this year, you have to look further out on the margins of popular respectability. Consider the half-Hindu yoga practitioner just elected to Congress from Hawaii. Or the new Buddhist senator. Or the two religiously unaffiliated women headed for the House and the Senate. . . .

Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat and an Iraq war veteran who won a seat in the House from Hawaii, is the daughter of a Hindu mother and a Roman Catholic father. She calls herself Hindu, a first for a member of Congress. But it is not quite that simple. “I identify as a Hindu,” Ms. Gabbard wrote in an e-mail on Thursday. “However, I am much more into spirituality than I am religious labels.” “In that sense,” she added, “I am a Hindu in the mold of the most famous Hindu, Mahatma Gandhi, who is my hero and role model.” Ms. Gabbard wrote that she “was raised in a multicultural, multirace, multifaith family” that allowed her “to spend a lot of time studying and contemplating upon both the Bhagavad-Gita and the teachings of Jesus Christ in the New Testament.” Today, her spiritual practice is neither Catholic nor traditionally Hindu. “My attempts to work for the welfare of others and the planet is the core of my spiritual practice,” Ms. Gabbard wrote. “Also, every morning I take time to remember my relationship with God through the practice of yoga meditation and reading verses from the Bhagavad-Gita. From the perspective of the Bhagavad-Gita, the spiritual path as I have described here is known as karma yoga and bhakti yoga.”

Ms. Gabbard won the Congressional seat of Mazie Hirono, who just became the first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate. Ms. Hirono is a “nonpracticing Buddhist” who “considers religion a personal matter,” a spokeswoman said. She is thus the first Buddhist (sort of) in the United States Senate.

Representative Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, just elected to the Senate, also does not discuss her religiosity. John Kraus, a spokesman for Ms. Baldwin, said that while she was baptized Episcopalian, that term no longer describes her religiosity. She prefers “unaffiliated,” he said.

The atheist and secularist movements are excited by the possible election of Kyrsten Sinema as a Democratic congresswoman from Arizona. (Votes are still being counted, but she is ahead.) Although raised a Mormon, Ms. Sinema is often described as a nontheist — and that suits the activists just fine. A blogger for the Secular Coalition for America wrote Thursday that while he was still dispirited by the loss of Representative Pete Stark of California, an open nonbeliever, he was “emboldened” by the apparent victory of Ms. Sinema, “an open nontheist.” Her nonbelief, the blogger, Chris Lombardi, wrote, “was not used to slander her as un-American or suggest that she was unfit for office.” But a campaign spokesman rejected any simple category for Ms. Sinema. “Kyrsten believes the terms ‘nontheist,’ ‘atheist’ or ‘nonbeliever’ are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character,” the spokesman, Justin Unga, said Thursday in an e-mail. “Though Sinema was raised in a religious household, she draws her policy-making decisions from her experience as a social worker who worked with diverse communities and as a lawmaker who represented hundreds of thousands.”

From the New York Times, Mark Oppenheimer, "Politicians Who Reject Labels Based on Religion" (November 9, 2012) via Gene Expression.

Notably, all but one of the five non-Christians discussed in the New York Times story hail from the Western U.S. (as do a many of the Mormons in Congress).

Also, notably, prejudice against a candidate's religious beliefs was not a particularly important factor in any of these candidate's races, nor was it a particular important factor in the Presidenital race (some accused President Obama who was secular in his youth and converted to Protestant Christianity as an adult, of being a Muslim, and some villified Romney for being a Mormon, but neither attack had much influence on voters).

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