The first Hindu elected to the House of Representatives, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, will take the oath of office in a few weeks — and she has chosen to place her hand on the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred text of her tradition.
Meanwhile, the woman she replaces in Congress, Mazie Hirono, will be sworn in as the first Buddhist elected to the U.S. Senate.
Welcome to the new religious America.
Religious diversity, of course, has long been part of the American landscape. But in 2012, religious minorities became newly visible and vocal in a society historically dominated by the symbols, values and leaders of the Protestant faith.
Now that Protestants are no longer in the majority — as reported in a study released by the Pew Forum in October — even the term “religious minority” will need fresh definition in our newly minted minority-majority nation.
The electoral victories of Gabbard and Hirono are just two of many recent signals that demographic shifts and changing attitudes are rapidly transforming America’s increasingly crowded public square.
Consider, for example, that for the first time in our history, none of the presidential or vice presidential candidates of either major party was a white Protestant.
Even more remarkable, the Mormon candidate not only received nearly half of the popular vote, but Mitt Romney was also supported in large numbers by evangelical voters who polls previously told us would not vote for a Mormon.
Religious affiliation (or lack thereof) is still a factor in public life. But the level of voter acceptance of candidates affiliated with historically unelectable faiths is growing.
When Congress convenes in January, significant numbers of politicians from groups with long histories of discrimination in America — notably Jews, Catholics and Mormons — will fill both chambers, many in leadership positions.
And let’s not overlook the fact that the current U.S. Supreme Court is made up of six Catholic and three Jewish justices and — another first — no Protestant.
Not surprisingly, there has been some backlash and resentment from those who don’t like the changing religious face of America — or who fear a falling away from the “Christian nation” they believe we are intended to be.
In 2012, American Muslims continued to be prime targets of both resentment and fear with debates in many state legislatures over anti-Shariah bills and protests in many communities over the building of mosques.
The most tragic religious-bias incident occurred on Aug. 6 when a white supremacist gunman attacked a Sikh temple in Wisconsin (perhaps in the mistaken belief that Sikhs are Muslims), killing six and wounding four.
But 2012 was also the year that American Muslims joined by many interfaith coalitions pushed back, defeating or stalling anti-Shariah legislation in a number of states and defeating several anti-Muslim candidates at the ballot box, including Florida Congressman Allen West.
The growing visibility and strength of America’s religious diversity is good news for religious freedom. The First Amendment affords legal protections, but it cannot fully prevent people in the majority from imposing social discrimination and political exclusion on those in the minority.
As James Madison argued at our nation’s founding, religious freedom is best secured in a society of many faiths and beliefs — with none in the majority. “For where there is such a variety of sects,” wrote Madison, “there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.”
Religious diversity, in other words, helps level the playing field, giving people of all faiths and none freedom to compete in the marketplace of ideas.
In religion, as in economics, monopolies stifle growth and innovation. That’s why the end of the Protestant hegemony in America will be no loss for religious people of any tradition, including Protestants.
On the contrary, as domination of one faith recedes, freedom for all faiths and beliefs expands — moving us ever closer to fulfilling the promise of religious liberty under the First Amendment.
Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.