What’s Religion Got To Do With It? Conflict Within the Democratic and Republican Parties

Because heaven and the news cycle decided to smile on me today, both political parties are dealing with issues relating to religious intolerance within their ranks, both stories have an undercurrent of racial or ethnic exclusion, and I can connect all this to a large and growing American demographic (Indian-Americans) and specifically to likely future Presidential Candidates Kamala Harris and Nikki Haley – it’s the “Religion, Identity and Politics” hat trick!

Down in Tarrant County, Texas, the local Republican Party has voted to retain Dr. Shahid Shafi as its vice chairman, despite objections from a minority within the local GOP establishment who argued explicitly that it was improper for a Muslim to hold that office and to represent all of the people of that county. It was implied by some Tarrant County GOP officials that Dr. Shafi’s Muslim faith meant he had divided loyalties, with the implication being that he could affiliate with an extremist organization of some sort (*Ahem*, useful rule of thumb: Ask yourself “Am I living in an old episode of 24?” If you answer “no,” then your seemingly ordinary Muslim neighbor is not a member of an al-Qaeda/ISIS sleeper cell).

Meanwhile, just as I was dispelling the myth that the Democratic Party has a religion problem, it is becoming increasingly evident that the Dems do have an issue vis-à-vis conservative Christians, in this case Catholics. Surprisingly, the accusations of religious intolerance are actually coming from within the Democratic Party, as Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii has accused her Senate colleagues – specifically fellow Hawaiian Mazie Hirono and Kamala Harris of California – of religious bigotry for questioning a judicial nominee’s affiliation with the Knights of Columbus, a popular male-only Catholic social group/charity/activist organization that (consistent with official Catholic doctrine) opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Representative Gabbard has said that attacking the judge, Brian Buescher, on his affiliation with the Knights is a thinly veiled attack against the judge’s religious beliefs.

“Muslim Republicans” and “Catholic Democrats”?

These two stories illustrate two distinct but connected trends in the continuing struggles that both parties have when it comes to incorporating certain segments of our increasingly diverse population into their ranks. The first trend is that of religious and racial sorting. Dr. Shafi’s story highlights the issues that the Republican Party has had with Islam. Since Sept 11, 2001, the Republican Party has been subject to accusations of Islamophobia, from hate crimes committed against Muslims (or those wrongly perceived to be Muslim), to the practices and rhetoric of the War on Terror (alternatively, “The War on Radical Islamic Terrorism” – branding!) to the current travel ban (originally proposed as an explicit Muslim ban).

We all of course remember the slander against candidate Barack Obama, who was accused of being a secret Muslim, which was a double insult because it both accused him of lying about his religious faith, and it implied that being Muslim was something to be ashamed of and keep hidden. And because Muslim Americans are generally non-white, anti-Muslim sentiments have often been tied to good old-fashioned American racism (see: the whole “Birther” conspiracy).

Many Republican leaders have been trying to fight this image of prejudice (remember that even as President George W. Bush initiated the War on Terror, he was always careful to state that it was categorically not a war on Islam, even if his words fell on the deaf ears of many). The drama in Tarrant County reflects the anti-Muslim (and let’s not forget racist) undercurrent that exists within the GOP, while the larger support for Dr. Shafi also shows the extent to which most of the Republican establishment has sought to distance itself from explicit bigotry.

At the same time, however, the GOP largely depends on its support from conservative Christians (George W. Bush and current Vice President Mike Pence wear their Christian identities on their sleeves; and Evangelicals have made a “Devil Went Down to Georgia” deal with Donald Trump). Thus, the Republican Party continues to wrestle with the extent to which it wants to be a white and/or Christian party. Because of this ambivalence, the Republican Party has developed an image of being run by and for white conservative Christian men – an idea that is shouted by people like Representative Steve King loudly proclaiming “white supremacy,” or “white nationalism“, if you prefer (truly the scariest Steve King we have in America right now).

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has positioned itself as the party for everyone else: women; racial, ethnic and religious minorities, and so on. This strategy is motivated by both progressive principles and demographic considerations as the country becomes more ethnically and religiously diverse. In doing so, the Democrats have explicitly and implicitly challenged white (male) ((Christian)) supremacy (oh, intersectionality, how you make my job relevant), but in the process, it’s taken the risk of developing a reputation as a party hostile to white Christian men (an idea that the Trump/Pence wings of the Republican Party have perpetuated and used for their advantage).

Senator Harris has previously been accused of attacking then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s stances based on his conservative Catholic background (in addition to taking issue with his alleged propensity for sexual assault, which we somehow couldn’t even agree would be a bad thing because politics sucks), and instances like Harris’ and Hirono’s criticism of the Knights of Columbus – essentially criticizing a religious organization for taking actions consistent with its religious identity – only fuel this criticism more.

Indian-Americans, Welcome to Party Politics in the US

Taking all that into account, both party’s strategies and concerns have converged on a growing American demographic – Indian-Americans – and the incorporation of this group into partisan politics represents the second major trend uniting these stories. Indians only started to immigrate to the US in large numbers in the mid 1960s, as the US government lifted or eased some fairly racist immigration restrictions that had been in place to essentially keep America white. Now, Indians represent the second largest immigrant group in the US after Mexicans, and so it’s no surprise that this growing community is now being reflected in politics in increasingly visible ways.

The Democratic Party enjoys a wide lead over the Republicans among Indian-American voters, and the Indian-Americans voted into Congress, including Senator Harris, are all Democrats. This fits with the Democratic ideology and strategy of being the party of diversity. However, with the exception of Harris (whose multiracial identity as a daughter of both Indian and Jamaican immigrants makes her story rather unique), the Republican Party has been more visible in promoting Indian politicians to prominence: former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and former South Carolina Governor and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley emerged as recent or future GOP presidential hopefuls, and the Trump administration, not otherwise known for its diversity (we have rich white men AND very rich white men too!) appointed or nominated at least seven Indian-Americans, including Haley, to prominent positions.

Republicans like Jindal and Haley help the GOP tackle its image problems concerning race and (in the case of Haley) gender, but the religious dimension is another story. Of course, India itself is predominately Hindu (interesting fact: Indians were initially classified as “Hindu” on the US Census, the only religious classification to appear as a racial group, largely because the term “Indian” had already been misapplied to indigenous Americans).  India also has a significant minority of Muslims; its Muslim population is one of the world’s largest. And yet the most prominent Indian American Republicans have been neither Hindu nor Muslim but rather Christian converts like Haley and Jindal (by contrast, Rep. Gabbard, is the first Hindu member of Congress). [Edited to clarify: Rep. Gabbard is not Indian-American but is a practicing Hindu, and she is a supporter of USA-India relations and popular among Indian Americans]. Dr. Sharif’s story illustrates the multidimensional issues of integrating Indians into the GOP – the objections raised against him were not (explicitly) racial or ethnic, but they were directly targeted at his religion, and if the Republican Party really wants to make inroads into the American Indian population and chip away at the Democrats’ advantage with this and other growing groups, the GOP will have to find ways to be more racially and religiously welcoming.

Similarly, Judge Buescher was not directly criticized for being a white man, but he was all but directly challenged for being a conservative Catholic, and as has been the case with white Evangelicals, the Democrats religious diversity runs the risk of venturing into religious intolerance in the name of diversity (a charge that Republicans have been making about liberals for years).  Both the Democratic and Republican Parties, already dealing with the long history of racially-divisive politics in America, also have significant blind spots when it comes to aligning their principles to practice when it comes to religious diversity. Not only will politicians like Senator Harris, Rep. Gabbard, Dr. Sharif or Ambassador Haley, whose heritages and political ascent place them at the forefront of these stories, have to sort out this complicated nexus of identity politics, but so will the two parties more broadly. And come 2024, as President Kamala Harris (edited to add: or Tulsi Gabbard) faces off in an election against Ambassador Nikki Haley (you heard it here first!), we’ll see how far the parties, and the country, have gotten.

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