Covering Rep. Gabbard’s American path to Hinduism, including some complex, tricky details

Most clickbait is so flatly manipulative that I find it easy to resist, but there is the occasional instance when a headline like “Tulsi Gabbard Had a Very Strange Childhood” when I think, “OK, convince me.” 

Kerry Howley does a lot of convincing in her nearly 7,000-word essay, published in the recent edition of The American Prospect. My impressions of Rep. Gabbard, who represents the Second Congressional District of Hawaii, are from the headlines: She’s of Samoan heritage, she’s a Hindu and she stood against Sen. Kamala Harris’ efforts to depict a nominee’s involvement in the Knights of Columbus as a theocratic threat to the American judicial system. 

As Howley shows in her reporting, Gabbard self-identifies as Hindu although the group in which she grew up — the Science of Identity — does not claim a Hindu identity. Like many other movements that repackage Hinduism for Americans, Science of Identity offers Eastern theology (teachings from the Bhagavad Gita), a passionate leader with an exotic adopted name (Chris Butler becomes Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa) and homemade variations on the life of faith (Howley quotes an aunt of Gabbard’s who calls Butler’s group the ‘alt-right of the Hare Krishna movement’ ”).

In this respect, Gabbard is Hindu in the same way that Arlo Guthrie was Hindu when he became a disciple of Guru Ma (Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati).

Gabbard’s father led his family into the movement before she was born, and she has stayed in relationship with it throughout her life.

Gabbard moved leftward in her perspectives on abortion and same-sex couples after she volunteered for military service and worked with a medical unit north of Baghdad. As Howley describes it:

When she returned, her positions on social issues eventually fell a bit more in line with the party; she said that living in a theocracy had changed her, and she no longer believed the state should dictate the romantic or reproductive lives of its citizens. She divorced Tamayo, won a seat on the city council, and ran for Congress against the Democratic Establishment candidate, a pro-life, anti-gay-marriage former mayor of Honolulu 27 years her senior. A Democratic National Committee in need of speakers for the party’s national convention turned to a young, attractive multicultural woman veteran and Congressperson who voted left but sounded credible on national security.

Howley is a mostly elegant stylist, and a wry humor shows as she writes about Gabbard’s communication style:

What she is — take it from someone with the same emotional profile — is remote. In interview after interview, she gives the impression of having anti-Establishment convictions just beyond the reach of articulation, as if she had carried instructions into battle and lost them. Her speeches feel not so much overly prepared as capably delivered from a separate location through her. She operates on the slightest delay, taking in information, scanning it, and delivering a slow response that registers only barely on her face. 

Howley is direct about Gabbard’s downplaying her association with Science of Identity, but toward the end of her essay her tone turns sympathetic as well: 

Tulsi Gabbard’s response to questions about the Science of Identity frequently begin with accusations of religious bigotry and “Hinduphobia.” Her campaign website once mentioned her years in the Philippines, but that reference has been removed. When The New Yorker asked her if she had a spiritual teacher, she said she had had “many different spiritual teachers,” that none was more important than the others, and that she has never heard Chris Butler say an unkind thing. (“I don’t even know what to say about that,” says Ian Koviak.) The campaign’s position is that any serious inquiry into Tulsi’s religious background constitutes a Hinduphobic line of attack to which other candidates would not be subject, though again, Butler’s group does not identify as Hindu. … 

How far does our commitment to religious diversity extend? Is it weirder to follow the dictates of a surfer guru who believes the moon landing was a hoax than to claim, as does Evangelical Mike Pence, that the establishment of Israel represents biblical prophecy? Georgia representative Jody Hice believes you can predict major political events through a succession of “blood moons.” A recent member of Congress claims pregnancy by “legitimate rape” is impossible. Because he believes bee pollen cured his allergies, former Iowa senator Tom Harkin has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars failing to prove the legitimacy of various alternative medicines, pollen among them. 

I expect that Pence, Hice and Harkin all have more complex stories to tell than Howley mentions in her report. Nevertheless, her broad point holds: what is perfectly strange to one person makes sense to another, all because of conclusions we reach about why the world works the way we believe it works.

Howley has done a commendable job of conveying the forces that have shaped Tulsi Gabbard, and showing that influences are not destiny. That’s a worthy goal for all reporters stepping into material this complex and personal.

Image of Tulsi Gabbard by Marc Nozell/Flickr

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