HinduPACT Quoted in Sri Lanka Express

No place for Buddhists with Joe Biden’s identity politics?

By Hassina Leelarathna
Comments are welcome.  Please write to hassinal@gmail.com
August 23, 2020
The run-up to the U.S. 2020 election is in full swing and so is the game of identity politics.
While Donald Trump and the far right might seem like masters at it, Democrats are not far behind as they woo targeted racial and religious populations.  In the process, they’re raising hackles in traditionally Democratic-leaning ethnic communities.
Buddhists are ignored by the right and taken for granted, even cold shouldered, by the left.  Some Sikhs and Hindus have their own grievances and are veering right.
Take some of the remarks made by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in his address to the Million Muslim Votes Summit last month:
“As Hindu American advocacy organization, we at HinduPACT USA believe that just as Vice President Biden has created a special page for Islam and other faiths on his website, he should create a special section for other faiths.  So far, he has ignored this demand from the dharmic traditions, which include Hindus, Buddhist, Sikhs and Jains,” says Ajay Shah, Executive VP of the World Hindu Council of America.
Shah sees Biden’s reference to teaching Islam and confessional faiths in schools as troubling as it excludes dharmic faiths.
“If Vice President Biden wants to be the President of all Americans, he should first try to become a presidential candidate who includes all Americans and not pander to any particular faith community. We eagerly look forward to Vice President Biden’s campaign becoming more inclusive towards dharmic traditions.” 

Turn now to the Democratic National Convention (DNC).  If it’s any consolation to Ajay Shah and others sharing a Hindu American advocacy platform, the virtually-run event last week featured Hindu and Sikh representatives.  However, it was at an interfaith service on Sunday, a day before the start of the convention (that ran  Aug 17- 20).

Neelima Gonuguntla, an attorney from Texas recited the Shanti Mantra from the Vedas.  Sikh and interfaith community leader  Pardeep Kaleka of Wisconsin prayed for those who lost their lives and those who are all sick from the pandemic, and called for a more just and compassionate world. 
Imam Noman Hussain of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, an  Islamic Studies Instructor and founder & CEO of an Islamic school, offered Muslim prayers.
Other faith community leaders at the event:
  • Rex Lee Jim –  of the Diné (Navajo) tribe, a former Vice President of the Navajo Nation
  • Marin Webster Denning – Milwaukee, Wisconsin: member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin
  • Bishop William Murphy III – Atlanta, Georgia: Lead Pastor of The dReam Center Church of Atlanta
  • Bishop Samuel Green – Columbia, South Carolina:  African Methodist Episcopal Church
In addition, there were confessional- faith blessings throughout the week of the convention.  On Thursday, the final day, as the Washington Post framed it, “Reflecting Democrats’ interest in interfaith engagement” four faith leaders from three religious traditions were featured:
  • Rabbi Lauren Berkun, vice president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.
  • Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the advocacy group NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice
  • Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at large of the Jesuit magazine America;
  •  Imam Al-Hajj Talib ’Abdur-Rashid, a Muslim social justice activist who leads the New York-based Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood.
Biden’s unspoken message to Buddhists during the weeklong pageant celebrating the nation’s “collective strength and diversity:” blessings not needed. 
Given an estimated 4 million American Buddhists, about 66 percent of whom lean liberal and vote Democratic, the snub is quite noteworthy, eliciting the following responses.
“If they [Democratic National Convention] had only one prayer, I think it appropriate that they asked a Christian minister to recite the prayer, since Christianity is the majority religion of the country, and the minister’s short prayer was not especially sectarian, apart from the mention of “the matchless name of Jesus” at the end. But if they had a variety of clergy, they should certainly have included a Buddhist representative,” said Ven. Bhikku Bodhi, well-known American (Theravada) scholar-monk in response to my request for his views
Ven. Walpola Piyananda, Chief Incumbent of the Los Angeles Buddhist Vihara, who has a large following of American Buddhist practitioners said it was “troubling that Buddhists are continuously overlooked by American political leaders.” 
As an example, Ven. Piyananda points out that  The Hindu Diwali festival is celebrated both at the White House and the State Department, so is the Muslim Ramadan festival,” adding that it’s the right thing to do to make ethnic minorities feel welcome.  He has been trying for a long time without success to have Washington give Buddhists the same nod.  “I have written several letters on the subject, including to Sec. of State John Kerry.  Never received a response.”
However, Ven. Piyananda is not giving up.  “Going forward, Buddhists must unite and make our voices heard.  Doing nothing is not an option.” 
Mark Zuckerman of San Francisco, who describes himself as a “life-long Democrat and engaged meditator, a skill learned at Buddhist Temples,” noted the DNC’s “loud silence of faith leaders who speak to the American experience out of a Buddhist perspective.”  While his primary faith background is Jewish,  Zuckerman says his exposure to Buddhism has enriched him with “a message that blends beautifully into the community of beliefs contributing to the enhancement of our national motto: one from many, E Pluribus Unum.”
With its emphasis on peaceful and nonviolent behaviors, he sees Buddhism as a positive force in crucial policy areas such as climate change. “The Democratic Party should overtly recognize these communities of faith and urge them to join in at this critical time in American history.”
Ideally, Democrats should have refused to play that game of faith-based identity politics and simply assured us of a just society that respects and treats all people alike, with sound policy decisions backing up that promise. 
With its decision to open and close its signature event with prayers of confessional faiths, with no representation at all of the Buddhist religion, the Democratic Party has indicated which religions are more welcome, whose votes more important. 
It has also shown that they don’t practice in America what they preach to the rest of the world.