Nov 5, 2012

The diversity of religion in American politics

Two congressional candidates in two very different districts demonstrate something of the religious diversity in American politics today.

In Hawaii, in a district that previously elected one of congress' few Buddhists, Tulsi Gabbard is currently leading in the polls by 52 points. If elected, Gabbard would be the country's first Hindu representative.

As the Religious News Service reports:
"Gabbard, 31, was born in American Samoa to a Catholic father and a Hindu mother, and moved to Hawaii when she was 2. In 2002, at age 21, she was elected to the Hawaii state legislature.

"[...] Gabbard, whose first name refers to a tree sacred to Hindus, fully embraced Hinduism as a teenager, and follows the Vaishnava branch that believes in the Supreme Lord Vishnu, and his 10 primary incarnations. Her primary scripture is the centuries-old Bhagavad Gita, whose themes include selfless action, spirituality, war, and serving God and humanity.

"'The Bhagavad Gita is often considered a guide as to how to make decisions in difficult situations, when the decision is often not clear cut,'  [co-founder of the Washington-based Hindu American Foundation, Mihir] Meghani said. 'Hinduism’s innate pluralism recognizes that there are various ways to look at things, and its focus on dharma, or duty, guides those holding positions of power or authority.'"
Gabbard's political rise has been described as "out of nowhere," though her district is strongly Democratic, and her opponent is homeless. She has, interestingly, talked about how her faith has important in her life, both during the time she spent in the military in the Iraq war, and in this campaign for congress.

As Michael J. Altman notes, there's a history of opposition to Hinduism in America, and that "the earliest American ideas about Hinduism, both for good and ill, endure" in discussions of Gabbard's faith. There's been especially vigorous opposition to Hindus involved in politics. That opposition has notably come from those who've argued that there shouldn't be a separation of church and state, and that a persons faith is necessary and an integral part of their public service.

Gabbard's faith doesn't appear to have been a critical part of her campaign, though. In one interview, she suggested her Hinduism would be an advantage when working with some foreign nations, such as India, but has otherwise made central such as issues banks foreclosing on deployed soldiers' houses, regulating banks, and changing America's nuclear policy, without making reference to Hinduism.

In Northwest Ohio, meanwhile, the Democratic challenger appears to be the country's only congressional candidate who is also a female ordained minister. Angela Zimmann is the pastor of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Zimmann's chances at election are slim: the district hasn't gone Democratic since 1939, and Ohio's districts were recently re-drawn by Republicans. The incumbent is seeking his fourth term, has raised more than $1 million, more than twice the amount Zimmann has raised, and he won his last race with 64 percent of the vote.

The Toledo Blade reports that Zimmann's faith has been a question in the campaign specifically as it relates to social issues. Her church allows for the ordination of homosexuals, for example, and has a moderate position on abortion. As the Blade reports:
"Challenger Angela Zimmann (D., Springfield Township), has likely the most pro-choice position of any of the major congressional candidates in the area. She says she personally opposes abortion, but doesn't feel the government has the right to make that decision for others, even late in a pregnancy.

"'As a mother and foster mother who personally opposes abortion, I find the late-term procedure to be particularly horrific,' she said in a statement, 'however, these difficult and deeply personal medical issues are best decided between a woman and her doctor.'

"Ms. Zimmann is a pastor for the Southeast Michigan Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has approved the ordination of homosexual clergy members and the blessings of same-sex unions.

"She frames her position on gay marriage around keeping government small, considering the Defense of Marriage Act an overreach of the federal government, and said the U.S. Supreme Court should rule it unconstitutional."
According to the Religious News Service, Zimmann has also attempted to cautiously delineate the relationship, in her own life, between religion and politics. She plans to keep ministering at her church, if she wins, but is adamant that politics not be a topic at church. She spoke with two bishops before announcing her run, but said it was a conversation, "non-hierarchical."

Her articulation of the role her faith plays in her public life is likewise cautious:
"'A person without a religious faith can still be a person of integrity,' Zimmann said in an interview, 'so I wouldn’t say that if you don’t have faith you don’t have values. But I know for myself my faith influences my values.'

"'Being from the Christian faith, our values are to care for the needy. The Bible talks about helping the elderly and the widows, and I see that as an analogy for helping anyone who doesn’t have their needs met.'"
As always, the conversation about "religion in politics" this election seems to be mostly about a certain kind of religion and a certain kind of politics. As these two congressional candidates, show, though, there's actually a good bit of variety when it comes to the religious faiths involved in politics, and when it comes to how politicians understand the relationship between their faith and their public works.