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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Faith may be factor in diverse Congress

By Dennis Camire and Bill Theobald
Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON Many Democrats talked openly during fall campaigns about faith and its influence on their policy positions to counter the religious right, but Hawai'i's two House members are skeptical about the role of religion in policies set by the new Congress.

Rep.-elect Mazie Hirono, D-Hawai'i, one of the first two Buddhists elected to Congress, is adamant that there should be a separation of church and state.

"I think that political leaders should not infuse religion as a central part of why they do anything," said Hirono, a naturalized Japanese immigrant.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawai'i, one of six religiously unaffiliated House members, is distrustful of "presumed religious imperatives" cited by public figures when they are proposing something politically.

"I don't want to be cynical about it, but I have my reservations as to the depth of their commitment on that score," he said. "History tells me that whoever is in power will make shameless use of their affiliation with God, presumably to their advantage, but more often than not, it doesn't work that way."

But now that Democrats have won control of Congress, people can expect next year to see a new set of issues being presented with a religious spin.

Restricting gay marriage and promoting prayer in schools as "values" issues are likely to be replaced by helping the poor and protecting the environment.

Beyond that, the 535 members of the 110th Congress will be the most religiously diverse in history and include the first Muslim and the first two Buddhists ever to serve.

"Political culture is finally catching up with the diversity of our country," said Albert Menendez of Americans for Religious Liberty, who has counted the religious affiliations of members of Congress for more than three decades.

Even with increased religious diversity, some doubt it will have much immediate effect in Congress.

"I don't think (things) change that quickly," said Rabbi Michael Lerner, who this year helped launch the Network of Spiritual Progressives to counter the religious right. "It may mean that for some in Congress who want to end the war, there will be more willingness to draw on those themes, and similarly with respect to poverty."

Roman Catholics will again make up the largest chunk in Congress, with 155 members, or 29 percent of the total, according to a breakdown compiled for the past three decades by Menendez. Nationwide, 24.5 percent of residents are Catholic, according to the American Religious Identity Survey. Next are Baptists, followed by Methodists, Presbyterians, Jews and Episcopalians.

The growth in recent decades in the number of Catholics, from around 100 to present levels, and in the number of Mormons, from a half-dozen to 15, is one trend Menendez has tracked.

And of course there is the election to the House of the first Muslim, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, and the two Buddhists, Hirono and Hank Johnson of Georgia. All are Democrats.

Part of that diversity comes from Hirono and Abercrombie, who both believe their religion plays a part in their approach to life and work.

Hirono was raised in Buddhist traditions but is not a daily practicing Buddhist.

"The way I think of Buddhism is as a way of life and the particular sect that my family is in values things like truth, wisdom and peace," Hirono said. "I think these are universal values."

Abercrombie said he reads theologians to try to form a sense of how he judges himself in life.

"I differentiate organized, institutional religion from questions of the spirit, questions of moral determinism or my sense of self in the universe," Abercrombie said. "I don't think the record of organized institutional religion is too good on that score."

Reach Dennis Camire at dcamire@gns.gannett.com.