You can always tell when the New Yorker team meets a religious person they deem to be either progressive-cool, such as former NYPD Muslim cop Bobby Hadid; or a refugee from weird Christian movements (Westboro Church’s Megan Phelps Roper). There are some exceptions, such as their sympathetic treatment of Rod Dreher’s vision of the Benedict Option.
But then there was their anemic coverage of Mike Pence’s faith and their jaundiced view of religious liberty. And then there's their no-holds-barred hostility-verging-on-incoherent treatments such as this review of the faith-based film "Let There Be Light."
What runs in the magazine is light years away from classic pieces like Peter J. Boyer’s Sept. 15, 2003, piece on Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ.” (Boyer now writes for The Weekly Standard).
So when I saw their latest piece on a Hawaiian politician who’s the first Hindu in Congress, I figured here’s another gushy article in the here’s-a-religious-person-who-isn’t- one-of-those-medieval-conservative-folks vein. As this piece in People magazine on her 2015 Vedic wedding illustrates, Gabbard is a colorful politician who's no stick-in-the-mud.
What saves this profile is how the writer actually did some work on the odd-ish guru that Tulsi Gabbard calls her mentor. First, the intro:
“(Gabbard) is thirty-six, and has a knack for projecting both youthful joy and grownup gravitas. Her political profile is similarly hybrid. She is a fervent Bernie Sanders supporter with equally fervent bipartisan tendencies—known, roughly equally, for her concern for the treatment of veterans and her opposition to U.S. intervention abroad. She is also a vegetarian and a practicing Hindu—the first Hindu ever elected to Congress—as well as a lifelong surfer and an accomplished athlete.
On Capitol Hill, she is often regarded as a glamorous anomaly: a Hawaiian action figure, fabulously out of place among her besuited colleagues. “She’s almost straight from central casting, if you need a heroine,” Van Jones, the progressive activist, says. Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican, is one of her closest friends in Congress. He first spied her on the House floor, sitting on the Republican side of the aisle. “This sounds terrible to say, but it’s also true -- you know, she’s cute,” he says. “So if you’re sitting on that side, and it’s a boring speech, you’re going to notice.” The night after Gabbard was elected, Rachel Maddow made a prediction on MSNBC: “She is on the fast track to being very famous.”
Gabbard had gotten a sympathetic nod in a previous New Yorker piece so I’m not surprised at the amount of gush there. Such as:
She engages audiences with a voice that is slow, reassuring, and faintly hypnotic. Her resting expression is a sympathetic smile, and she has perfected an effective double-hug technique: a warm, long embrace when she meets someone, and an even longer one when saying goodbye, as if to signal that something meaningful has transpired. “We love you, Tulsi,” someone called out when she finished.
That sticks to your feet, as my grandfather used to say. Was there going to be any serious reporting on this woman? Finally, near the middle, we get this:
With her brown skin, black hair, and Hindu name, Gabbard is sometimes mistaken for an Indian-American. (She is named for the holy-basil plant, also known as tulasi, a sweet-smelling herb that appears in the Bhagavad Gita as an offering to the Lord.) “Hindu,” of course, refers to her spiritual orientation, not to her national origin, but she is often described as “Hindu-American,” a formulation that blurs the line between faith and identity.
Gabbard has grown more comfortable talking about her faith, which she barely mentioned earlier in her political career. But she has resisted telling the story of her spiritual journey. This summer, when I asked her about the teacher who led her to Hinduism, Gabbard grew evasive. “I’ve had many different spiritual teachers, and continue to,” she said.
“There’s not one that’s more important than the others?”
“No,” she said. But there is, in fact, a teacher who has played a central role in her life—a teacher whom Gabbard referred to, in a 2015 video, as her “guru dev,” which means, roughly, “spiritual master.” His name is Chris Butler.
What follows is reams of information on Butler, Hawaiian politics and anti-Hindu bigotry. And then:
In an essay about her faith that she sent to me, Gabbard compared herself to John F. Kennedy, who sought to reassure voters who were worried by his Catholicism; he promised to discharge the duties of the office “without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.” But there is no simple way to distinguish between the religious “dictates” that might make voters nervous and the religious “values” that politicians—particularly Christian politicians—so frequently pledge to uphold.
It would be absurd to expect Gabbard to make political decisions without reference to the spiritual path that she has walked all her life. After all, her determination to seek agreement outside her party is, in no small way, a product of that path, and quite possibly a laudable one. Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican, likes to tell Gabbard that she is “the most Christlike member of Congress,” a complicated sort of compliment that says something about the way we try to reconcile spiritual traditions that are ultimately incommensurable.
The writer doesn’t get that Gowdy is simply giving Gabbard the highest compliment that is possible for him. And I have no problem with the writer editorializing that it’s cool that Gabbard’s Hindu beliefs inform her politics. I simply wish the New Yorker had been kinder with how Mike Pence does the same thing.
The best paragraphs in the story occur near the end:
Nine years ago, another promising politician had to figure out what to do about a spiritual leader who became a magnet for criticism: as a candidate, Barack Obama defended his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, until, finally, he abandoned him. But Wright represented only a small slice of Obama’s life, whereas Gabbard’s life would be unrecognizable without Butler’s influence.
Decades ago, her father tried, with some success, to make common cause with Mormons, evangelicals, and other people of faith who shared his opposition to same-sex marriage. His daughter is far more politically skilled, but her task is also far more difficult: she must find a way to make common cause with a Democratic Party that is increasingly secular and increasingly partisan.
But –- and here is where the reporter missed it -– Gabbard’s beliefs on same-sex marriage, the Iraq war and gender issues, are in line with the party’s platform, so it doesn’t matter whether Democrats are secular or not. What if her Hindu beliefs took issue with core Democratic tenets? Would this profile be as sympathetic?
We all know the answer. Religious beliefs that go along with whatever’s acceptable in blue-state newsrooms can be praised. Beliefs that go against the dominant culture are generally mocked. I appreciate the magazine doing the research on a faith that many Americans aren’t familiar with, even if the object is a very likeable liberal Hindu.
If they’d be as classy about a conservative Hindu -- now that would be a story.