Tulsi Gabbard, the First Hindu in the U.S. Congress?

By Michael J. Altman

The Religion News Service has posted an excellent profile of Tulsi Gabbard, the Democrat running for Congress in Hawaii's 2nd district. Gabbard is leading in the polls by a whopping 52 points and should win in a landslide. Of course, her opponent, Kawika Crowley, lives and campaigns out of bumper-stickered white van. If Gabbard wins, she will be the first Hindu in the United States Congress.

In the RNS article, reporter Omar Sacirbey notes some of the push back non-Christian religions have experienced in Congress:
Not everyone would welcome a Hindu into Congress. When self-proclaimed "Hindu statesman" Rajan Zed was asked to open the Senate with a prayer in 2007, the American Family Association called the prayer “gross idolatry” and urged members to protest; three protesters from the fundamentalist group Operation Save America interrupted the prayer with shouts from the gallery.

Then-Rep. Bill Sali, R-Idaho, said the prayer and Congress' first Muslim member “are not what was envisioned by the Founding Fathers.” Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum told supporters this summer that equality was a uniquely Judeo-Christian concept that “doesn’t come from the East and Eastern religions.” Crowley, in an interview with CNN.com, said Gabbard’s faith was incompatible with the Constitution.
The AFA, Rick Santorum, and Kawika Crowley all sum up notions about Hinduism that have been ingrained in American culture since the early nineteenth century. When the AFA called a Hindu prayer "gross idolatry" they were invoking a view of Hindu religions that began with early European encounters in India and spread throughout America during the rise of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) and the missionary movement as a whole. British missionary apologist Claudius Buchanan's image of the bloody "Juggernaut" (an Anglicization of the god Jagannath) was a popular image of Hindu idolatry in America and Britian. When the ABCFM sent missionaries to Bombay in the first third of the nineteenth century they sent back accounts of "Hindoo idolatry" to be published in missionary magazines. These images dominated the American evangelical imagination of India and the Hindu other throughout the nineteenth century and even to today.

Similarly, Santorum and Crowley's claim that Hinduism has no claim on the Constitution or American ideas of equality also has roots in the nineteenth century. As a Protestant moral establishment took control of American culture in the nineteenth century they sought to imagine America as a land of white/Protestant/democracy. In this scheme India became a land of dark/Hindu (or heathen)/caste. American writers, in genres ranging form magazine articles to school textbooks, consistently represented India as the opposite of America. Where Hinduism encouraged a hierarchical caste system in India, Christianity encouraged equality in America. Needless to say, both of these representations of Hinduism--as either idolatry or inequality--tell us less about Hinduism and more about the people propounding them.

The RNS article does a great job of outlining Gabbard's own Hindu belief and practice. She served in the National Guard and was deployed in Baghdad and Kuwait. In that light, I find it interesting that she singles out the Bhagavad Gita as central to her understanding of Hinduism, as that book is itself a meditation on war and the warrior's duty. Gabbard's reference to the Gita also reflects another longstanding image of Hinduism in America. Beginning with the first English translation of the Gita by British Orientalist Charles Wilkins in the late eighteenth century, the Gita has been central to more positive representations of Hinduism in America. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman all praised the wisdom of the book. Furthermore, in a culture dominated by logo-centric Protestantism, the Gita was often cited as the "Bible" of Hinduism and compared with the New Testament, with Krishna and Christ put alongside one another.

So, as Tulsi Gabbard runs for, and probably wins, a seat in the the U.S. Congress the earliest American ideas about Hinduism, both for good and ill, endure. Now, if only someone was writing a dissertation about this...


Excellent post. I'm not sure where the "Hindu statesman" scare quote for Rajan Zed come from inthe RNS story. He's quite well known in the interfaith movement and within the Hindu community in the Western US, just as A.V. Srinivasan has become in the Northeastern US.
In this connection you may find interesting the following paragraph from an officially sanctioned sermon that was preached in Boston on election day in 1852. It contrasts religious liberty with mere toleration, and significantly extends religious liberty not only to all Christians and Jews, but to Muslims (the "Turk") and followers of Asian religions as well.

"Such is the religious liberty enjoyed in these United States. It is derived directly from the King in Zion. It is not a matter of toleration, but a heaven-descended and inalienable right. Saul is an Episcopalian, and Cephas a Presbyerian, and Gaius a Baptist, and Demas a Roman Catholic, because, in the exercise of their own judgement, and under, we trust, a sense of responsibility to God, they so choose to be. The people of every nation. Parthians, Medes and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia; and every religious sect, whatever may be their faith, with the merest shred of a creed, and far-spread patch-work of a superstitious ritual; whether Catholic or Protestant, Jew or Turk; they may here worship God, each in his on way, without molestation or fear from any human agency. If the Chinese choose to erect a Buddhist temple in California, or in any other part of the Union, they will meet with no trouble; and no special attention will be given to their work or their worship farther than as they may be, for a while, matters of curiosity. Every man may sit under his vine and his fig-tree and none shall make him afraid."

[Rollin H. Neale, _A Sermon Delivered before His Excellency George S. Boutwell, Governor, His Honor Henry W. Cushman, Lieutenant Governor, the Honorable Council, and the Legislature of Massachusetts, at the Annual Election, January 8, 1852._ (Boston: Dutton & Wentworth, State Printers, 1852; 48 pp.), pp. 8-9.]

That's a fascinating quote, Robert. Thanks for sharing it. I'm going to go look at the whole thing.

Christopher, I think the RNS put the scare quotes in because, at times, Zed has come off as a bit of a media hound. He loves to put out a press release whenever he can. But yea, he has done some good interfaith work as you say.
You're welcome, Michael. I happened on that sermon many years ago, while tracking publications by or about Henry Wyles Cushman, an ancient relative of mine (not a direct ancestor), and I was impressed by what it said. [My own Cushman direct ancestors have been religiously eccentric, off and on, for centuries, so I was curious how much light the sermon might shed on the culture in which they lived at that time.]

Neale himself was a Baptist, not a Congregationalist, and he was born and raised before the "Protestant moral establishment" really managed to take control of civic discourse in the USA -- which control, on my reading of the evidence, really only developed in the decades after the Civil War. I rather think that Neale's sentiments were not all that remarkable in the pre-Civil War years.

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