Archives For Mazie Hirono

This week the 113th Congress of the United States of America convened, and while this is a routine part of our government’s normal functioning, both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate saw some historic firsts that should appeal to those hoping for a more religiously diverse representative body. Perhaps the most high-profile is Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu to be elected to Congress, and the first person to swear their oath of office on the Bhagavad Gita.

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard

“I chose to take the oath of office with my personal copy of the Bhagavad-Gita because its teachings have inspired me to strive to be a servant-leader, dedicating my life in the service of others and to my country.” – Rep. Tulsi Gabbard

In addition to Gabbard, Sen. Mazie Hirono, also of Hawaii, became the first Buddhist elected to the U.S. Senate (she had already served in the House), and the first Asian-American female senator.

Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii

Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii

“I don’t have a book [...] But I certainly believe in the precepts of Buddhism and that of tolerance of other religions and integrity and honesty [...] It’s about time that we have people of other backgrounds and faiths in Congress…”Sen. Mazie Hirono (in 2007)

A third first comes from Arizona where Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, the first openly bisexual member of Congress, also happens to be the first explicitly religious “none” elected to Congress.

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema

Democratic Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who was raised a Mormon, is religiously unaffiliated but does not describe herself as an atheist. Her campaign was unavailable for comment to Whispers due to the swearing in, but spokesman Justin Unga told the Religion News Service in November that Sinema favors a “secular approach.” He told the New York Times the same month that Sinema “believes the terms ‘nontheist,’ ‘atheist’ or ‘nonbeliever’ are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.”

There are other interesting religious facts about the 113th Congress, but I think these three women are representative of the shifts happening in the United States right now. Specifically the rise of “nones” who aren’t necessarily atheists, but also don’t claim a religious identity,  and the ongoing growth of non-Christian minority religions. We are fast approaching the day where hot-button moral issues in this country can no longer be discussed solely within a Judeo-Christian context, and we are already seeing the end of the “white Christian strategy” in national politics. It’s a new dawn, one that started with the November elections, and is now enacted with this new Congress.

Last night, aside from a few hold-outs, a prevailing consensus formed about the election that won President Barack Obama a second term, and kept the Senate in Democratic control despite unfavorable odds: America’s demographics have shifted.

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President Barack Obama hugs wife Michelle on learning that he was re-elected for a second term in office.

“The white establishment is now the minority,” Bill O’Reilly, one of the network’s most famous personalities, said earlier this evening. “The demographics are changing: It’s not a traditional America anymore.” Minutes later, former Gov. Mike Huckabee would slam his own party for failing to reach out to non-white voters. “I think Republicans have done a pathetic job of reaching out to people of color,” Huckabee said during an appearance on Fox. “That’s something we’ve got to work on. It’s a group of people that frankly should be with us based on the real policy of conservatism.”

But the erosion of “traditional” America wasn’t simply about fewer white voters, it was also about women, and younger voters, who defied the ever-popular notion that they are politically apathetic. It was also about shifting religious demographics too.

“Romney has been winning in battleground states among white evangelicals, white Catholics, and weekly churchgoers. But it wasn’t enough to give him a victory. In Pennsylvania, for example, while Romney won white Catholics and white Protestants, Obama won among Catholics as a whole, the unaffiliated, and non-white voters. [...] A recent Pew survey found that there are now equal numbers of white evangelicals and unaffiliated voters, and a Public Religion Research Institute poll found similar results. I noted at the time of the PRRI survey that the bulk of Romney’s base was coming from white conservative evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Catholics, while Obama’s ‘support comes from a more diverse group: 23% from the unaffiliated, 18% from black Protestants, 15% from white mainline Protestants, 14% from white Catholics, 8% from Latino Catholics, and 7% from non-Christians. Romney draws just 3% of his base from Latino Catholics, 2% from non-Christians, and an unmeasurable portion from black Protestants.'”

Did you catch that? The religiously unaffiliated are about the same size as white evangelicals, the demographic that politicians from both parties have wooed for decades now. During the run-up to the election I noted that both parties need to do a better job in reaching out to the very real pluralism and diversity that is religion in the United States.

“The problem is that both parties have been slow to embrace real pluralism and religious diversity in their one prime-time 3-day infomercial to the American people (and in certain senses, the world). This may not be a problem for this election cycle, but it is increasingly going to be an issue as that slow demographic shift keeps on shifting, and more states start to be evenly divided between Christians on one side, with “nones” and “others” on the other. The “unchurched” (non-Christian) vote is going to be a real thing in the years to come, and we’re a frustratingly diverse demographic. Asian-Americans are a key growth point for non-Abrahamic religions across the country, while a whopping 12% of state residents are adherents of a New Age, Pagan, or esoteric faiths in Colorado, with another 20% fitting into the “none” category. These are growing populations that can’t be ignored forever.”

The unaffiliated were a big chunk of Obama’s religious support, and a whopping 70% of “nones” and 74% of “others” (which would include us Pagans) voted for the President last night. For all the analysis focused on race or gender last night, it’s also disastrous for any candidate to so completely alienate non-Christian voters (it should be noted that Obama also garnered nearly 70% of the Jewish vote as well, despite efforts to undermine that support).  The more pluralistic and religiously diverse American becomes, the harder it will be to ignore non-Christian voices.

Sifting through the results from last night you can start to see the realignments. Hawaii sends the first Buddhist, Mazie Hirono, to the US Senate, and the first Hindu, Tulsi Gabbard, to the House.

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Tulsi Gabbard & Mazie Hirono of Hawaii.

“Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), a practicing Hindu of the Vaishnava tradition, campaigned on her experience as a former Honolulu City Councilwoman and Iraq war veteran. Her landslide win was expected after she became the Democratic party’s candidate following a primary victory in the state’s second district in July. She replaces Mazie Hirono, a Buddhist, who subsequently won Hawaii’s vacant Senate seat.  “Gabbard is an incredibly inspiring leader whose political rise is a testament to the greatest ideals of American pluralism,” said Aseem Shukla, co-founder and Board member of HAF.”Hindu American Foundation (HAF)

Meanwhile, New York’s 6th Congressional District was handily won by Democrat Grace Meng, beating out Dan Halloran, a conservative Republican, Tea Party politician, and Heathen.  While Halloran, himself a non-Christian, didn’t have an issue reaching out to non-Christians per se, he had an uphill demographic climb in the Democratic-leaning district, one where Asian Americans are increasingly seen as vital if you want to win (a demographic that accounts for much of the growth in non-Christian faiths in America). Meng becomes the first Asian-American to be elected to Congress from New York. The Halloran-Meng face-off itself is something of a harbinger of the future, where racial and religious minorities are a given in both parties, with both vying for votes in an ever-diverse electorate.

Last night was also a historic night for same-sex marriage rights.  Maine and Maryland both legalized same-sex marriage by popular vote, reversing an ongoing electoral trend that favored social conservatives. Now, this morning, it looks like Washington will join them, a race decided by the religiously unaffiliated majority in that state.

“When I wrote my initial piece, I asserted that “if Cascadian nones are truly the New Age, nature religion, do-it-yourselfers that researchers assert, then this could be a preview for what a truly post-Christian pluralistic political struggle will look like.” So, with the clock ticking down on the November elections, where do we stand on this ballot initiative that would potentially stop gay marriage in Washington state?  A September 10th poll says that 56% of Washington voters support upholding legal same-sex marriage in their state, while only  38% favor eliminating equal marriage rights, 6% are undecided. This is remarkable data, even in a traditionally “liberal” state like Washington, as voter referendums on same-sex marriage have always favored limiting legal marriage rights to opposite sex couples.”

In that piece from September I said that: “it’s Washington that I’m most interested in because of the trends that point to the “nones” in the Pacific Northwest being more like “us” Pagans in inclination and spiritual orientation. If you want tea leaves to read over what a “Pagan” vote might look like, this might be our chance to witness it in action.” If you also factor in the vote to legalize marijuana, and the general “blue” trends in that state, I think my analysis holds up.

The good news didn’t end there. Minnesota also rejected a constitutional amendment that would have banned gay marriage, a ballot strategy that has always worked for anti-gay groups in the past. For the many Pagans who affirm and bless same-sex unions this is a big step torward ending the hegemony of Christian morality dominating the conversation on issues like this.

There are many other instances I can pull up here, Colorado going blue (and legalizing pot), the influx of women senators, the overreach of social (Christian) conservatives, but I’ll simply end with this point: I think we’re going to see a lot more elections that look like this one. That doesn’t mean that Democrats automatically win all the time, or that Republicans are always doomed to lose, just that the playing field will never again be like it was in the 1980s or 1990s. The slowly shifting demographics have started to turn a corner, and savvy politicians, no matter what their political orientation, will adapt to these emerging realities. Yes, that means reaching out to racial minorities, and women, and younger voters, but it also means reaching out to the “nones” and the religious “others” instead of banking everything on the evangelical Christian vote (or the Catholic vote for that matter).

Welcome to the beginning of the post-Christian American future.