Yes, a victory for Mitt Romney on Tuesday would have been the ultimate sign that Americans accept Mormons — that a tradition until recently considered a cult throughout the evangelical world, unable to shake its association with long-discarded polygamous ways, has come to seem pretty normal.
But the truth is that in Washington, anyway, it has been a long time since Mormons lacked clout. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, is a Mormon; there have been Mormon members of the Cabinet; and there are 15 Mormons in Congress. A President Romney would have been the cherry on top, but Mormons already have plenty of ice cream.
For the real underdog story in the elections this year, you have to look further out on the margins of popular respectability. Consider the half-Hindu yoga practitioner just elected to Congress from Hawaii. Or the new Buddhist senator. Or the two religiously unaffiliated women headed for the House and the Senate.
These politicians constitute an unusual minicaucus, whose members are unusual not for their religion, precisely, but for the fluid and abstract terms they use to talk about it — when they choose to talk about it, that is. Mormon or Orthodox Jewish politicians have succeeded before, but as the price of admission they have been forced to explain their faith. This new bunch is just saying, so to speak, "Don’t worry about it."
Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat and an Iraq War veteran who won a seat in the House from Hawaii, is the daughter of a Hindu mother and a Roman Catholic father. She calls herself Hindu, a first for a member of Congress. But it is not quite that simple.
"I identify as a Hindu," Gabbard wrote in an email Thursday. "However, I am much more into spirituality than I am religious labels."
"In that sense," she added, "I am a Hindu in the mold of the most famous Hindu, Mahatma Gandhi, who is my hero and role model."
Gabbard wrote that she "was raised in a multicultural, multirace, multifaith family" that allowed her "to spend a lot of time studying and contemplating upon both the Bhagavad-Gita and the teachings of Jesus Christ in the New Testament."
Today her spiritual practice is neither Catholic nor traditionally Hindu.
"My attempts to work for the welfare of others and the planet is the core of my spiritual practice," Gabbard wrote. "Also, every morning I take time to remember my relationship with God through the practice of yoga meditation and reading verses from the Bhagavad-Gita. From the perspective of the Bhagavad-Gita, the spiritual path as I have described here is known as karma yoga and bhakti yoga."
Gabbard won the congressional seat of Mazie Hirono, who was elected to the Senate. Hirono, who was raised Buddhist, has called herself a nonpracticing Buddhist. If that counts — and plenty of professed Christians in Congress might not practice much — she will be the first Buddhist in the Senate.
Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, just elected to the Senate, also has not discussed her religiousness in public. Baldwin, who has been listed as having no religious affiliation, did not return a call and an email to her campaign office.
The atheist and secularist movements are excited by the possible election of Kyrsten Sinema as a Democratic congresswoman from Arizona. (Votes are still being counted but she is ahead.)
Although raised a Mormon, Sinema is often described as a nontheist — and that suits the activists just fine. A blogger for the Secular Coalition for America wrote Thursday that while he was still dispirited by the loss of Rep. Pete Stark of California, an open nonbeliever, he was "emboldened" by the apparent victory of Sinema, "an open nontheist." Her nonbelief, the blogger, Chris Lombardi, wrote, "was not used to slander her as un-American or suggest that she was unfit for office."
But a campaign spokesman rejected any simple category for Sinema.
"Kyrsten believes the terms ‘nontheist,’ ‘atheist’ or ‘nonbeliever’ are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character," the spokesman, Justin Unga, said Thursday in an email. "Though Sinema was raised in a religious household, she draws her policymaking decisions from her experience as a social worker who worked with diverse communities and as a lawmaker who represented hundreds of thousands."
Furthermore, Sinema "is a student of all cultures in her community," Unga said, and she "believes that a secular approach is the best way to achieve this in good government."
In rejecting not only religious labels, but irreligious labels, too, these politicians resemble the growing portion of Americans who feel that no particular tradition, or anti-tradition, captures how they feel about God, or the universe, or what the theologian Paul Tillich called "ultimate concern." It is not just that they are unaffiliated — many people unaffiliated with a particular church, for example, still call themselves Christians. It is that when these politicians are asked to talk about their religion, familiar language fails them.
Or maybe the language does not fail them; maybe we fail them by asking. "No religious test," Article VI of the Constitution reads, "shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." So let us now praise Hindu women and Muslim men, but let us also praise those who do not know how to answer. And those who just refuse to.
Mark Oppenheimer, New York Times