The face of America is changing. The nation is becoming more and more diverse – ethnically, culturally, and religiously. For some in our communities this is a rather frightening prospect. We hear it said on a regular basis that the traditional American way of life is disappearing – and by that people mean that the days seem to mean Waspish America. It is true that an America that’s defined in White, Protestant, Anglo terms is fading into the past. Yes, the days in which America’s religious diversity could be summed up in the words “Catholic, Protestant, Jew” are gone. Although these three traditions didn’t comprise the entirety of the American religious landscape a half century ago, most of the other faith traditions existed on the margins of society. Those who once lived on the margins have begun to take their place in the center of our society, and as a result a new American reality is being forged. What that will look like in the end, no one knows, but a new America is in the process of being shaped.
We Americans have prided ourselves on being a nation of immigrants, though unfortunately reality has been at best complex. As European immigrants began to take up residence in the Americas in the 15th century and later, they (we) pushed the original residents off their land and almost into extinction. Then there is the horrific history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, by which millions of Africans were brought to this land against their will. But whether people came to this land of their own choice or not, together we have formed a nation and a people.
The grand myth of American life is the belief that when immigrants came to America they assimilated into the majority culture. While it’s true that that a dominant “American culture” emerged early in our history that was defined by the English language, European customs, and even Protestant religious values, the values, languages, and cultures of immigrants lingered on and even added to the emerging American culture. There was a bit of melting occurring, but not every aspect of culture melted away. If nothing else stands as a reminder of this reality, think about the variety of cuisine available to us in this nation. Cultural traditions have continued to hang on even as representatives of the dominant culture sought to melt them away.
It’s worth noting that one of the arguments for public education as it began to take shape in the 19th century is that public schools could further this process of assimilation. Indeed, it may surprise some in our community to learn that one reason why religion and the Bible were taught in these schools was that advocates hoped that Catholic immigrants would give up their religion in favor of Protestantism. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now. People have learned how to keep and pass on the cultural values of their own communities, even as they have taken their place in American life. And, in my opinion, we are the richer for it.
Now, it has taken a while for these demographic changes to become embodied in our governing institutions, but Congress, for instance, is beginning to reflect these demographic changes. Consider that it was just a few years ago, that we welcomed the first Muslim into Congress. Now, much was made (not all of it positive) of the fact that Keith Ellison of Wisconsin took the oath of office using the Qur’an rather than the Bible. But his decision broke the ice and since then Congress has continued to diversify religiously.
Consider for a moment two important events that took place on Wednesday as a new Congress was sworn into office. First, we saw the swearing into office of the first Buddhist member of the Senate, Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). Even as Senator Hirono took her place in the Senate, her successor in Congress, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), became the first Hindu to serve in Congress. Like Rep. Ellison Rep. Gabbard chose to take the oath office using the sacred text of her own faith tradition. In this case, it was Bhagavad Gita upon which she placed her hand and swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Yes, these two women represent the new face of America, where Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and many other faith traditions join with the traditional three – Protestant, Catholic, and Jew.
I realize that for some in our community these developments are suggestive of the decline of American culture. As Stephen Prothero, a Harvard Religion Professor, reminded readers of USA Today in a column, in the year 2000, when a Hindu priest offered the first Hindu Prayer in the US House of Representatives, one Christian group denounced it as an “indication that our nation is drifting from its Judeo-Christian roots.” In 2007, a group interrupted a Hindu prayer in the Senate asking that “Jesus would forgive the nation ‘for allowing a prayer of the wicked’.” Yes, things are changing, but rather than resist these changes, perhaps we could celebrate them. Perhaps the United States is beginning to truly reflect our potential to be a nation that not only welcomes immigrants but embraces the diversity that they bring to the public square. No one needs to live on the margins any more. Every voice can be heard, even if we don’t always agree with each other. And if any community is in the position to celebrate our diversity it is Troy, where 20% of the residents are of Asian descent, and a great many of these members of our community are either Muslim or Hindu. We may not see this diversity represented in the halls of our local government – yet – but the time is coming when the diversity that is beginning to make its mark in the halls of Congress will be manifested in our local governing bodies.
Won’t you join me in celebrating the gift that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Sen. Mazie Hirono bring to our nation’s highest legislative body? May this reality help encourage us to step boldly into this new America, so that letting go of our fears we might embrace the exciting possibilities that lie before us!