My colleague and friend Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar, who presides over the Boston Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church, recently brought to the attention of members of the Council of Bishops an interesting article that caught his attention in a newspaper in India. The headline reported: “First Hindu U.S. Legislator Makes History with Oath on Gita.”
The news account began, “Five and a half years after a Hindu prayer opened a U.S. Senate session, Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, created history by taking the oath of office on the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred Hindu text.”
Bishop Devadhar, called affectionately by his colleagues, “Suda,” went on to write movingly about how the article spoke to his heart.
The religious landscape of America is changing! Historically, the nation has been noted for its diverse racial and ethnic population, but the future will bring widespread religious multiplicity, as well. It is already common in communities across the country to see not only churches as places of worship, but also synagogues, mosques and temples. While Christianity has been and is still the predominate religion practiced, more people than ever before claim other faith allegiances. (Also, 20 percent of U.S. adults surveyed in a recent study said they had no religious affiliation at all—an increase of 5 percent in only five years.)
Methodism has a long and rich history of relating to people of different faiths, going back to its founder, John Wesley. United Methodists have often welcomed opportunities to reach out to those who call God by different names, and indeed, the potential for these efforts is even greater as we witness the changing demographics of the nation.
Ecumenical dialogue in America will expand in coming decades to include more interfaith ties, friendships between people of different faiths and, overall, a growing mutual respect—I hope! Of course, religious and racial intolerance will be there, too, but I pray it will be rare among United Methodists!
Each year when the Pew Forum on Religion and Politics reports the religious affiliation of U.S. congressional leaders, I confess that I count the number of United Methodists. I am pleased, however, that our nation has no religious test for elected leaders; the primary criteria should always be how wisely those leaders will govern. And wearing a lapel pin of an American flag or a cross around one’s neck should never be seen as an indicator of either genuine patriotism or faithful Christian discipleship.
As the nation moves toward an age of even greater racial, ethnic and religious diversity, I trust it will enrich our culture and society. In addition, I pray that our politics will become more civil and our policies more just.
By the way, after Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s swearing-in ceremony this month, she told the press that she chose to take the oath of office with her personal copy of the Bhagavad Gita “because its teachings have inspired me to strive to be a servant-leader, dedicating my life in the service of others and to my country.”
Retired Bishop White is bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta.