Hindus Are Thriving in America, but There's Only One in Congress

Voters have a harder time recognizing their namesand don't identify with their religious backgrounds.

Tulsi Gabbard took the oath of office on a Bhagavad Gita at her swearing-in in January 2013. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

When Tulsi Gabbard first ran for Congress in 2012 from her home state of Hawaii, her Republican opponent, David “Kawika” Crowley, ridiculed the observant Hindu for subscribing to a religion that “doesn’t align with the constitutional foundation of the U.S. government.”

In the elections held the following month, Gabbard became the first—and only—Hindu ever elected to Congress.

Gabbard isn’t, however, your typical Hindu—at least she's not what is normally associated with being a Hindu. She’s a Hawaiian of Samoan descent, the daughter of a Roman Catholic and a Caucasian Hindu convert.  She’s a light-skinned, surfing, Iraq War vet set to marry her boyfriend later this year in a traditional Vedic ceremony.

Her election illustrates the complicated tightrope Hindus—and consequently, Indian Americans—walk in establishing a political identity. After all, in a country where two million Americans identify as being Hindu and many more count themselves as ethnically South Asian, why haven’t there been more people of Indian origin walking the halls of Congress? And why is it only now that a Hindu has been elected to Congress?

Indian Americans are a relatively new immigrant community. Many are Hindu, although India is a multicultural, multireligious society that includes a sizable population of Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, Christians, and other religious groups. The Indian population has grown sharply after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 opened up quotas for Indians to migrate to the United States.

Hinduism, for its part, has surprising connections to American democratic culture. In the early 1800s, transcendentalism came into vogue, with its stripped-down sensibility, and spiritual approach to nature and society. The movement’s fans (who include some of The Atlantic’s founding fathers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau) invoked basic Hindu texts in their philosophy and composed wildly popular essays tinged with ancient Hindu scriptures.

The Indian American presence on the political stage was delayed until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which opened up the quotas preventing Indians from migrating to the United States and sharply increased the presence of Indians in America. Dalip Singh Saund was the first Indian American member of the House of Representatives, a Sikh who converted his PhD in math to a successful farming career in California, garnering support for a brief Congressional career. But the Indian American presence in Congress since then has been limited, the only blip being former Congressman—and now governor of Louisiana—Bobby Jindal.

The history of Indians—and relatedly, Hindus—in American political life might seem to justify, at least at first blush, a greater political presence for this group. Indian Americans, after all, have established themselves as a cultural mainstay. There’s the stereotype, rightly or wrongly, of Hindus (and, by default, Indian Americans) as doctors, engineers, spelling-bee stars, math wizards, and computer geeks. But Indian Americans have long been teased for their heavy accents (think Apu in The Simpsons) and squeezed into the niche of a “model minority,” with no room for political influence outside of the arenas of math and science.

Pop culture, though, has helped erode these views. Mindy Kaling’s successful run of The Mindy Project has made her a darling of prime time TV watchers for portraying a ditzy doctor who often confuses her Indian background with what Americans understand about the land of her ancestors; Aziz Ansari (a Muslim) made Parks and Recreation’s comedy one that transcended (and poked fun at) America’s understanding of race; and Kal Penn made it not only possible to envision an Indian American in a stoner comedy (the Harold and Kumar franchise) but also translated his time volunteering with the Obama campaign into a role connecting to Asian-Americans on behalf of the President’s administration.

Gabbard’s status has helped the Hindu presence on the national political stage. But it also illustrates a sensitive split in who can and cannot run for Congress: Successful candidates tend to be Christians, with names and personas that are more palatable to other Americans.

Take Jindal, for example. The governor of Louisiana has sparked controversy in the Indian American community for what is often seen as a denial of his Hindu origins (Jindal converted to Christianity as a boy). Nikki Haley, governor of South Carolina and the other leading Indian American on the national stage, also converted to Christianity after being brought up a Sikh.

Gabbard is the only Hindu in Congress; nationwide, numbers are difficult to obtain. There are a few local elected officials in states with larger Indian American populations; many more have converted professional success into political appointments, like Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

The geography of religion in America dictates who wins where, and many times, this geography works against Indian Americans, says Karthick Ramakrishnan, associate dean of public policy at the University of California—Riverside and founder of AAPI Data, which collects statistics on the Asian-American/Pacific Islander communities.

“The thing to keep in mind with Hindus and Asian-Americans in general is that there are not too many places where they are large enough to be the determinant of votes, save the Chicago and New York metro areas,” Ramakrishnan said. “You can’t just count on the Asian-American vote—and even less so the Hindu vote—to win office.”

And even where they are most densely concentrated, Hindus aren’t a large enough bloc to get a candidate to office. Mike Honda of California is the only representative with a majority Asian-American district in the continental United States. Running as a Hindu, in other words, does not have the same pull as other religious backgrounds, whereas running as a conservative Christian can, in certain districts, lead to a shoo-in win.

Religion is often dismissed as irrelevant to politics: A representative from Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s camp recently dismissed a query about the president's faith as a distracting “gotcha” question. But candidates on the national stage have long had to answer questions regarding their worship. The minority faiths of candidates often face destructive, bigoted backlash, whether it be John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism, Joseph Lieberman’s Judaism, or most recently, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. And adherents of non-Western faiths face even more skepticism. “If there is a case where religion is a liability, then not being a Judeo-Christian would be it,” said Ramakrishnan.

Ramakrishnan points to a few districts across the country that simply don’t care about religious affiliation (mostly urban, coastal, and liberal), but notes that “certainly there are many threshold districts, but in most places, it comes down to name recognition.”

Name recognition, in fact, may be the sticking point keeping Hindus back from achieving national political office—one that hasn’t been as troublesome to other Asian-Americans, according to Ramakrishnan.

“There’s a strong push towards assimilation in American society,” Ramakrishnan said. “If you look across Asian-American groups, Hindus are the least likely to have an Anglo name. If you look at Chinese and Korean names, they will often have a Christian name. But you don’t see that as much with Indian Americans as you might with Punjabis.”

Punjabis, or those hailing from the northwestern Indian state of Punjab, often have Anglicized nicknames. Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley are Punjabi, and, partially because of a fortuitous coincidence of being Punjabi and having wholesome, relatable Americanized nicknames, were able to rebrand themselves early on with names that were more familiar to the American palate than their original birth names (Piyush and Namrata, respectively).

Perhaps, for Indian American politicians, explaining themselves in the context of religion, particularly one that is foreign to many Americans, is cumbersome, awkward, and ultimately, unnecessary.

Gabbard has spoken to many young Hindus who have reached out to her and said that they often find themselves embarrassed by pop culture’s portrayal of Hindus and Indian Americans.

“Hinduism is largely misunderstood today in part because of how it’s been portrayed in a negative and backwards way,” Gabbard said. “In essence, it’s a monotheistic and non-secular practice. It’s more about spirituality than sectarianism,” she added, describing her sect of Vaishnav Hinduism, Brahma Madhva Gaudy Sampradaya.

Gabbard thinks that Hinduism attracts little attention and therefore, hate speech against Hindus receives little condemnation. Crowley, a Republican, was not reprimanded publicly by the Hawaiian Republican party for his Hinduphobic comments.

“This kind of religious bigotry still exists,” she said. “Being a Hindu in the United States can lead to discrimination in renting a house, opening a business, or doing everyday things.”

It’s because of the prejudice facing Hindus that many candidates either hide their religious affiliation or simply ignore it. Being a Christian—like Jindal and Haley—is helpful in conservative districts. But declaring one’s Hindu faith might work against a candidate, Ramakrishnan notes: “Certainly for someone who is Hindu, it’s a barrier. We have a strong monotheistic set of traditions in the U.S. and for that person to have to explain themselves, especially if they are devout—it might not work.”

But more than outright hostility, Hindus contend with widespread ignorance. Hindus, after all, are a group of people who remain an enigma to the average American, who trust them more than Mormons but less than Buddhists, smack dab in a scale produced by Pew. The same study found the overall sense of Hindus was “neutral.” They weren’t trusted, in other words, but neither were they mistrusted. They weren’t familiar, nor were they quite unfamiliar.

With the maturation of the second generation of the community, however, Ramakrishnan thinks things might change. He points to American-born Hindus who can more easily walk the line between the religion of their parents and the land and culture of their experience.

But the national stage? Ramakrishnan sees little hope for a Hindu in the Oval Office in our lifetimes, pointing to the strong Christian tradition that has shaped American history.

Gabbard disagrees—and perhaps, her roles as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and a “rising star” of the Democratic Party mean she can afford to be optimistic.

“Absolutely [a Hindu can be in the White House one day],” Gabbard said. “When you look at the national issues that our country is facing, people are not qualified or disqualified because of their spiritual practice. People are looking for someone they can trust.”