WASHINGTON — Half a century ago, 75 percent of the US Congress was of the Protestant Christian religion. And all legislators were sworn into office on the Bible. Things have changed. History is being made in Washington, with the first Buddhist as a Senator and the first Hindu holding a national office. It's a legislature that abides by the U.S. Constitution’s implied rule of separation of church and state.
It is prayer hour inside the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple. With 17 deities, it is one of the largest temples in the Western Hemisphere.
Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world. But it took until last year for the first Hindu to be elected to a national office in the United States. She is Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.
"Her duty and action is to serve the people of Hawaii,” said Siva Subramaniam, who is founder and chairman emeritus at the temple.
“Karma is one of the 3 or 4 paths in which you follow the scripture to realize God," said said Siva Subramaniam.
Years ago, practicing a religion other than Protestant Christianity could hinder congressional candidates. Now it's even okay to have no faith. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is the first representative in history to list her religion as "none."
And, Mazie Hirono is the first to bring Buddhism to the U.S. Senate.
“Buddhism is a way of life. You don’t have to go to church. You don’t have to chant. That’s why I embrace Buddhism as a way to be respectful of other people’s thoughts and religions,” said Hirono.
Indian-American Congressman Ami Bera is a Unitarian, but he samples different churches every Sunday in his California district. This week, it’s Methodist.
“Core to being a Unitarian Universalist is that we believe in one god, but many paths to that one god,” he said.
Bera chose to use the Bible when he was sworn in as a Congressman. Sinema, a copy of the U.S. constitution. Gabbard carried the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred Hindu text. And Congressman Andre Carson used the religious book of Islam.
“It’s always been the constitution, but we switched it up this time with the Q'uran,” he said.
Carson is one of two Muslims in Congress.
“I think most of us support a separation of church and state, but, having said that, we all value the fact that America is a pluralistic society, and it’s a society that embraces all religions all faiths, all ethnic groups.”
Lawmakers and prayer
Sixty years ago, congress established a prayer room inside the capitol. The media is not allowed in - it’s only for senators and representatives. It’s a simple room, with a stained glass window, featuring the nation’s first president - George Washington - kneeling in prayer.
Father Patrick Conroy is chaplain of the House of Representatives. The same framers of the constitution who promoted a separation of church and state also were the first to appoint a chaplain. Every chaplain since 1789 has been Christian, though Conroy emphasizes inclusion.
“The prayers I offer are for the whole House. For the government, for our nation and for our world,” he said.
Analysts doubt the increasing religious diversity will change the way lawmakers vote or the way Americans vote for their legislators. It does make a promise to the next generation, though, that they'll grow up knowing their religion will not overshadow an opportunity to serve.