When the new members of Congress are sworn in on Jan. 3, the institution that once mirrored the nation's Protestant Christian dominance will look slightly more like the religiously diverse nation it represents. The new Senate will seat a Buddhist member for the first time and the House of Representatives will have its first Hindu member.
Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who currently serves in the House of Representatives, won her Senate race last week and will be sworn in as the Senate's first Buddhist. Hirono's House seat will be filled by Tulsi Gabbard, who will become the first Hindu in Congress. Hirono will also be the first Asian-American female and the first person born in Japan to be elected to the U.S. Senate.
The new Congress will have at least seven members whose faith is not from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Besides Hirono and Gabbard, two other Buddhists, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii), were re-elected. Two Muslims, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.), were re-elected. And Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) will be Congress' only atheist after winning her first House race. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), the only atheist in the current Congress, lost his bid for re-election. Sinema will also become Congress' first openly bisexual member.
The current Congress also has six members who would not identify their religion.
Another candidate in Tuesday's election, Ami Bera (D) was raised Hindu, but is now a Unitarian Universalist. He is currently leading against Rep. Dan Lungren (R), but the race is still too close to call.
Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, was also raised Hindu and converted to Catholicism.
Two other Hindu candidates, Manan Trivedi in Pennsylvania and Upendra Chivukula in New Jersey, lost in their elections.
"Gabbard is an incredibly inspiring leader whose political rise is a testament to the greatest ideals of American pluralism," said Aseem Shukla, co-founder and board member of Hindu American Foundation. "That Gabbard won while proudly espousing her Hinduism and voicing a willingness to be a strong voice for Hindu Americans brings over two million Americans into the political landscape for the first time.
In an interview with Religion News Service, Gabbard said she hopes her Hindu faith with help Congress build closer ties with India, where Hinduism was founded.
"How can we have a close relationship if decision-makers in Washington know very little, if anything, about the religious beliefs, values, and practices of India's 800 million Hindus?" she said.