Tulsi Gabbard, Mazie Hirono Break Congressional Barriers for Non-Christians

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard - Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Tuesday's election brought some religious firsts for Congress, with a victory for Tulsi Gabbard, who will be the first Hindu congresswoman, and Mazie Hirono, the first Buddhist senator. Both are Democrats from Hawaii.

For a country whose founding principles include religious freedom, the American government has a history of being almost homogenous with respect to religion.

Half a century ago it was almost unthinkable for some that a Catholic could win the presidency.

But just as leaders have broken racial and gender barriers over the years, so too are non-Christian candidates moving forward.

Former Deputy Historian for the House of Representatives Fred Beuttler pointed to the 110th Congress, elected in 2006, as a win for religious plurality. That's the year a Muslim, Keith Ellison, D-Mich., and two Buddhists, Hank Johnson, D-Ga., and Hirono from Hawaii, were elected to the House.

Hirono is now leaving her House seat to become a senator. Tulsi Gabbard will succeed her.

"Tulsi never ran as a Hindu or thought of the campaign in that way," Gabbard campaign spokesman Jim McCoy said in an email. "However, after her victory there was a huge outpouring of joy and elation from Hindus throughout America and even in India. So although Tulsi has never seen it as a 'victory for Hindus,' it's clear that Hindus in America now feel less marginalized than they had prior to her election."

Beuttler attributed the changing makeup of the government to religious changes in the American population.

"The House is a very representative institution by its design," Beuttler said. As Americans become more diverse, "you expect to see more religious diversity in the House."

During the campaign, Congresswoman-elect Gabbard took some heat for her religion. In an interview on CNN, her opponent said her beliefs don't align with the U.S. constitution. But McCoy said Gabbard refused to get caught up in that issue.

Now that the race is over, Gabbard is still directing the public away from her personal beliefs.

"While I understand all of the interest about my being the first Hindu elected to Congress, I feel that of greater importance is the fact that Tammy Duckworth and I will be the first women combat veterans ever to serve in Congress in our country's history," Gabbard wrote to ABC News in an email. "Thousands and thousands of women in our armed forces have given their lives and made tremendous sacrifices, so to have the voice of women combat veterans in Congress is a very important milestone."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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