Celebrating the First Hindu-American Representative: Why Religious Diversity in Congress is a Victory for Religious freedom

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According to data from the Pew Forum, the recently sworn-in 113th Congress is the most religiously diverse Congress in U.S. history. This includes the first Buddhist Senator, Mazie Hirono (D – Hawaii), and the first Hindu-American, Tulsi Gabbard (D – Hawaii), who was sworn in with one hand on the Bhagavad Gita, a centuries-old Dharmic holy book.

And though I as a Christian admittedly know very little about Hinduism, I still celebrate Gabbard’s election—and the entire 113th Congress—because it represents victory for religion in the public square.

Yet, it seems typical for the Christians I know to throw up their hands in frustration with Congress. They lament the fall of Christianity in the public square and bemoan the decline of congressional integrity. It’s as if Christians grew accustomed to believing that our status as the majority religious group afforded us “extra special” freedom under the Constitution.

However, this belief is not only arrogant, but also wholly incorrect and dangerous. If Christians believe that we can marginalize minority religious groups in the public square, we do the First Amendment—and its guarantee of religious freedom—a disservice. If we truly want to privilege the freedom of religion in the public square, Christians must adopt language that demonstrates respect for others’ freedom to choose their religions—and then practice them as they see fit. Such is the nature of the freedom guaranteed to all citizens in the Constitution.

Religious freedom and religious diversity go hand in hand. As the Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on Religious Freedom states, “The free exercise of religion does not require its privatization but rather the guarantee that all citizens receive equal treatment. … Instead, government should uphold public pluralism.”

What I do know about Hinduism is this: It’s innately pluralistic, and that’s something Christians would do well to appreciate. From a Christian perspective, public pluralism “requires equal treatment of citizens in both the public and private practice of religion,” without privileging one religion over the others—as some Christians have been known to do. We tend to forget that the religious freedom guaranteed to citizens in the First Amendment comes with few provisions. Rather it extends to citizens of every religion—not merely those whom we see in our own pews.

Thus, we ought to consider it a blessing, rather than a curse, that the 113th Congress is more religiously diverse than ever. Religious diversity will help guarantee that new legislation more accurately reflects the views of citizens, all of whom are guaranteed equal representation in the policy-making process. As our elected leaders represent a wider range of religious views, so too will the overall makeup of Congress reflect the actual religious composition of our society.

One additional benefit is less explicit: Religious diversity will safeguard against creeping secularism, the tendency of the government to privilege “anti-religion” in an attempt to wash its hands of religious issues. But rising secularism actually discriminates unjustly against religion, and public justice requires that “there must be no privileging of secularism or of anti-religion in the public square.”

As a result, religious diversity should be celebrated as the byproduct that occurs when citizens exercise true religious freedom. Gabbard has said she hopes her new role in Congress will inspire other Hindu-Americans to be proud of their faith, and her sentimental account of meeting a fellow Hindu man whom she had inspired became widely reported :

“On my last trip to the mainland, I met a man who told me that his teenage daughter felt embarrassed about her faith, but after meeting me, she’s no longer feeling that way,” Gabbard said. “He was so happy that my being elected to Congress would give hope to hundreds and thousands of young Hindus in America, that they can be open about their faith and even run for office, without fear of being discriminated against or attacked because of their religion.”

A woman who’s proud of her faith and is willing to advocate for less religious discrimination? That sounds like a politician that everyone—especially Christians—should support.

-Melissa Steffan is a 2012 graduate of Seattle Pacific University with degrees in Communications – Journalism and Political Science. She is a former intern of the Washington Post and the Center for Public Justice, and she is the 2012-13 Editorial Resident for Christianity Today magazine. You can follow her on Twitter at @melissasteffan.