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

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…


The Education Investment, Citizenship, and the Perfection of Society and Government; Or, What Noah Webster Would Say to Romney and Obama

Lately I’ve been working a side project, a lengthy encyclopedia article on religion and education in America. I’m taking a historical approach in the article and laying out a basic narrative: building a Protestant educational establishment, challenges to that establishment, and, finally, Protestant educational disestablishment. With that article in the back of my head, it has been interesting to listen to the ways Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have approached questions of education during this election. For the most part the candidates and political reporters have focused on the differences between the two. For example, this comes from the Washington Post:

President Obama and Mitt Romney agree that improving schools and providing more training is one of the keys to restoring America’s economic prowess. But their views diverge over what’s holding the country back. Obama says it’s inadequate investment. Romney says it’s the teachers unions and cumbersome bureaucracy.

In their basic stump speeches, both Romney and Obama include education among their five-point plans to turn around the economy. Obama spends more time talking about Pell grants and student assistance because he’s eager to fire up enthusiasm among young voters, who were a key to his victory four years ago. Romney emphasizes conservative themes of school choice to fire up his base.

You can check out the Obama and Romney campaign pages on education for more details on the differences between the candidates. But what is striking to me, as someone who has been thinking about the history of education in America lately, is what both men share in common. They both put education in economic terms. The goal is to make good on an investment. Obama’s site explains how the president wants to invest in community colleges to ensure folks can find good jobs. Romney wants to ensure students find jobs when they graduate so they can get a return on their investment.

Compare this with Noah Webster’s view of the purpose of education (1790):

Every small district should be furnished with a school, at least four months in a year; when boys are not otherwise employed. This school should be kept by the most reputable and well informed man in the district. Here children should be taught the usual branches of learning; submission to superiors and to laws; the moral or social duties; the history and transactions of their own country; the principles of liberty and government. Here the rough manners of the wilderness should be softened, and the principles of virtue and good behaviour inculcated. The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head.

Such a general system of education is neither impracticable nor difficult; and excepting the formation of a federal government that shall be efficient and permanent, it demands the first attention of American patriots. Until such a system shall be adopted and pursued; until the Statesman and Divine shall unite their efforts in forming the human mind, rather than in loping its excressences, after it has been neglected; until Legislators discover that the only way to make good citizens and subjects, is to nourish them from infancy; and until parents shall be convinced that the worst of men are not the proper teachers to make the best; mankind cannot know to what a degree of perfection society and government may be carried. America affords the fairest opportunities for making the experiment, and opens the most encouraging prospect of success.

What a difference. “The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities”–so much for those community colleges and returns on investment. It’s all about your virtue and how your virtue shapes society, not the market. As Webster saw it, the goal of education was to produce fully-fledged citizens. In his time that meant Protestant citizens, hence the need for the Statesman and Divine to work together. But what about for our time? What would “good citizens” nourished form infancy look like now? This is the important educational question of our time, as I see it. Because, as Webster says, a system of schools can produce an unknown “degree of perfection” in society and government.

For a long period in American history the goal of education was the production of proper citizens. What made a citizen proper varied over time and was a source of dispute. Protestant educational reformers sought to inculcate a non-specific Protestantism, to borrow a phrase from Tracy Fessenden, in students. Catholics pushed back. Many non-whites found the Protestant educational establishment thrust upon them. But even with the insidious and systematic power of cultural assimilation and Protestantization, American education aimed at social, civic, and cultural goals.

This election is about the economy, stupid, and so I understand why education has become a line in our national investment portfolio. But that portfolio is worthless in the hands of an atrophied civil society.


Lydia Maria Child Is Oddly Prescient in an Election Year: Red and Blue Spectacles

Reading the last chapter of Lydia Maria Child’s The Progress of Religious Ideas I came across this passage that seemed timely during our election season:

Little or no progress toward truth is usually made, because passages of ancient books are taken up hundreds of years after they were written, and are used in a sense altogether foreign from the original intention, in order to sustain some opinion, or tradition of the then present time. And the human mind is not free to pursue even this distorting process; but colleges of supervisors are appointed to instruct the young in what light everything ought to be viewed. One college covers the eyes of all its students with red spectacles, so that every object seems on fire. Another insists that blue spectacles are the only proper medium; consequently its pupils maintain that all creation is ghastly pale. Whereupon red spectacles rush to battle with blue spectacles, to prove that the whole landscape is flame-coloured. If one who uses his natural eyesight comes between them, and says, ever so gently: “Nay, my friends, you are both mistaken. The meadows are of an emerald green, and the sunshine is golden,” he is rudely shoved aside, as an heretic, or an infidel. One party calls out to him: “Did you ever look at the landscape through red spectacles?” Another shouts: “Did you ever examine it by the only right method, which is through blue spectacles?” And if he cannot answer in the affirmative, they both vociferate: “Then you had better keep silence; for you are altogether incapable of forming a correct opinion on the subject.”

Child is describing religious controversy during her lifetime. But it seems to me red and blue spectacles are easy to find in the fall of an election year.


Sharia Myths

Adam Serwer summarizes a new report that debunks the myths underlying conservative panics over sharia. In short, sharia is not like Biblical law or the Ten Commandments and it is not a threat to the United States.

But the sharia panic that is driving state legislatures to try and criminalize Islam, and making GOP presidential candidates fearful of even looking tolerant of Muslims, is based on an understanding of the religion that would be analogous to treating the bombing of an abortion clinic as the only true possible interpretation of Christianity.


But Could You Vote For THIS Mormon?

Politico reports that the NAE is trying to make nice with Mormons and that this is good news for Mitt Romney and Jon Hunstman:

The National Association of Evangelicals is holding its semiannual board meeting in Salt Lake City on Thursday — the first time the group has met in Utah. The association chose to gather in Utah precisely to open the door to improved relations between the religious groups.

The board plans to meet with a Mormon leader, in what the evangelicals are framing as an opportunity for “dialogue” that will “deepen our understanding of the Mormon faith and contribute to the ongoing work of evangelicals in Utah.”

The gathering also has clear implications for 2012 presidential politics, with two leading Republican White House contenders still facing the prospect of influential Evangelical Christians in key early-voting states viewing them warily.

At the bottom of the piece Republican strategist Brett O’Donnell claims that less and less conservative evangelicals are dissuaded by a Mormon candidate. I’m not so sure, but it will take an election to find out.


Tim Pawlenty, Bad Fundamentalist

After producing a truly epic book advertisement, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty sat down for an interview with Christianity Today. Two of his answers early in the interview jumped out at me:

 

Your book encourages Christians to be involved in public issues. At what point might Christians rely too much on political solutions to current problems?

I started with the perspective of someone who says that faith is separate from public law and public service; it really isn’t. We have, as a country, a founding perspective that we’re founded under God; our founding documents reference and acknowledge God, and acknowledge that our rights and privileges come from our Creator.

For those who have an interest in or passion about an issue, being involved in the political process is important. It isn’t for everybody; there are other ways to serve, including the family, neighborhood, faith-based organizations, charitable organizations, and also reaching out and helping somebody on a one-on-one basis.

Recently, Alabama governor Robert Bentley spoke at a Baptist church about accepting Jesus Christ as your Savior, and then said, “I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister and I want to be your brother.” How does someone balance being evangelistic while also having the obligation of a governor representing a religiously diverse state?

I’m not familiar with the Alabama situation, so I can’t comment on it. Beyond that, when I go into the public square and speak about faith matters, first of all, I try to not inject my own personal editorial comments. If I make a faith-related comment, I usually quote from the Bible, often from the Old Testament. I remind people that our country is founded under God, and the founders thought that was an important perspective. I watch my tone so I don’t get judgmental or angry about issues. I try to express myself in ways that are measured and appropriate and hopefully civil and positive. Lastly, I try not to say that God is on my side, but I strive to be on God’s side.

There is a parallelism in Pawlenty’s logic here. First, he argues that our founders and our founding documents show that our country was “founded under God,” though he never explains what that phrase means or what its repercussions are; nor does he even discuss who this God we’re founded under is. But that’s beside the point. He also incorrectly implies that God or a Creator is mentioned in our Constitution when only “Nature’s God” is mentioned, and then only in the Declaration of Independence. Yet that’s also beside the point.

The point is that, for Pawlenty, there is evidential proof of America’s founding “under God” in the Founders and their documents. Then, he makes the point that when he speaks in public about matters of faith he tries “not to inject my own personal editorial comments.” Rather, he quotes from the Bible. Pawlenty’s use of scripture and his use of the Founders share a similar precision. In both cases he believes he is not injecting his own editorial comments, but instead, that he is relating what is plainly obvious. Just read the founders. Just read the documents. Just read the Bible. It’s all there, clear as day.

Continue reading at Religion Dispatches>>>


GOP Hopeful Herman Cain: Jesus was “The Perfect Conservative”

There’s now officially a hat in the ring—or is it a pizza? Herman Cain, the man who saved Godfather’s Pizza and argued against Bill Clinton’s attempt at health care reform, has started a presidential exploratory committee. In a profile on Cain at Slate, David Weigel describes Cain’s popularity among the Tea Party folk:

When Cain speaks at conservative conferences and Tea Party rallies, he gets bigger crowds than members of Congress, and only slightly smaller crowds than Fox News hosts. He was invited to join the board of Tea Party Patriots, declining in part because he was thinking about this presidential bid, and he was a spokesman for Ginni Thomas’ “Liberty Central.” At the October 2010 Virginia Tea Party Patriots Convention in Richmond, I saw football-jersey-style T-shirts displaying names of those who might run for president this year: Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Mike Pence, and Herman Cain. When no other Republican wanted to talk about 2012, Cain would walk into speeches introduced by a heavily produced video, a highlight reel of his other speeches.

Weigel also notes Cain’s radio show on WSB in Atlanta where he rails against President Obama, “socialism,” and the Democrats abuse of individual rights while mixing in some “Dale Carnegie-esque leadership talk.”

When it comes to his credentials as a Christian conservative, well, Cain is working on those. Sarah has already pointed out religious right connections and he’s continued to step those up. Last month he wrote a Christmas column for World Net Daily titled “An Example for America: The Perfect Conservative” in which he turned the carpenter from Nazareth into Ronald Reagan:

He helped the poor without one government program. He healed the sick without a government health-care system. He fed the hungry without food stamps. And everywhere He went, it turned into a rally, attracting large crowds and giving people hope, encouragement and inspiration.

Continue reading at Religion Dispatches>>>


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