The First Hindu in Congress?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 18, 2010 — 2 Comments

In Pennsylvania’s Sixth Congressional District, Democratic candidate Dr. Manan Trivedi is facing off against Republican incumbent Jim Gerlach this November. While Gerlach has weathered tough political challenges in the past, PA’s Sixth District is notoriously competitive, and it isn’t outside of the realms of possibility for Trivedi to pull an upset, even in this Republican-leaning electoral climate. So why am I covering this particular horse-race? Because if Trivedi pulled an upset, he’d be the first-ever Hindu (“That’s what I put on my dog tags when I was in the Navy.”) congressman to be elected to office. This is significant, because while Indian-Americans have made great political advances in recent years, the unspoken “religion barrier” has remained very real.

“The extra attention carries both positive and negative implications for members of minority faiths, said Suhag Shukla, managing director and legal counsel for the Hindu American Foundation. “I think it sends a mixed sense of hope to young people in the Indian-American community that while we may have, as a society, gotten somewhat over the race barrier, the religion barrier is still there,” she said. At least seven other Indian-Americans are running for Congress or statewide office this year, many of whom openly embrace Sikhism, Hinduism or other Indian religions.”

While Trivedi has maintained that “issues are much more important” than what his religion is, his campaign claims that his Hinduism and Indian background have been used as a tool against him by his opponent. Most recently, Gerlach alleged that Trivedi was playing the “race card” by seeking donations from the Indian-American community. Trivedi responded, slamming Gerlach’s comments.

“These are hardworking American who pay their taxes and contribute to society.  Congressman Gerlach’s campaign is saying that somehow they aren’t good enough to participate in our democracy.  Like many Americans I am so proud of my heritage and grateful for all of the support I’ve received and believe absolutely no one, for any reason, should ever feel shut out of the democratic process.”

Trivedi is part of a record wave of Indian-American candidates this election cycle, and religious and racial issues keep coming up. While the Indian-American candidates refuse to say that their religious differences have been a hindrance, outside Hindu observers are more frank. Vidya Pradhan of India Currents magazine says that candidates like Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley “felt that not being a Christian would hurt them.” Hindu American Foundation co-founder Aseem Shukla says that there is a religious litmus test for high office in America, one that sends an unhealthy message to religious minorities in the United States.

“The Indian American community may be politically mature enough to realize that Indian Americans in high office necessarily serve their constituency and not the ethnic community from whence they came. But the need to “prove” religious fidelity can be unnerving. In 2007, when 358 Christian, Jewish and Muslim members of the U.S. House passed a non-binding resolution recognizing the historical significance of the Hindu and Sikh festival of Diwali, Jindal, then a member of the House, was one of only a handful of legislators that publicly abstained.

Jindal and Haley, as brilliant and dynamic trailblazers, have thrown open the doors to political office, laying waste to minefields of ethnic slurs and perverse allegations that naysayers put in their way. Race is not an impediment to high office, and that is something to celebrate, no doubt. But in their public remonstrations of their parent’s faiths, Jindal and Haley tell well over three million Hindu and Sikh Americans that their time has not yet come as people of faith. And in their absolute denial of their religious heritage, they deny something far greater: a society that privileges pluralism, that no one religion has the monopoly on Truth, and that Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Pagans, agnostics and atheists may invest differently towards the afterlife, but can live in this life with all of the humanity, generosity and yes, frailty of any of those that presume to lead our states or nation today.”

If America is to live up to its promise, it needs to reflect the pluralism and diversity of its citizens. Eventually, an openly Hindu, Jain, or Sikh candidate will overcome the obstacles to election, and it could be Dr. Manan Trivedi in Pennsylvania, or Dr. Ami Bera in California. If either, or even both, were elected they would join Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Hank Johnson of Georgia, who became the first two Buddhists to be elected to the United States Congress. This is in addition to three Unitarian-Universalist, and two Muslim members of Congress. What will the reactions be if they win? Would they be protested? Demonized? Shouted at during congressional proceedings? Or would we finally realize that having religious minorities in office is not only important for other religious minorities, but for the health of our nation?

The Wild Hunt doesn’t endorse candidates, nor am I going to start now. Pagans in Pennsylvania’s Sixth Congressional District should vote their conscience, and not be guided by any endorsement I could give. But I do think that we could be on the cusp of a history-making election (from a religious standpoint), and I want my readers to be aware of that. I’ll be keeping track of these races, and of the race for Nevada State Assembly, where Tea Party-backed Pagan candidate Erin Lale is in the running.

Jason Pitzl-Waters