THE BLOG
11/08/2012 10:52 am ET | Updated Jan 08, 2013

America the Beautiful: Why a New Politics Is Also a New Religion

It must have been a busy night up in the heavens, or wherever it is that the gods and goddesses who nourish the dreams of all those who believe in them live and do their work.

I can imagine Ganesha, going here and there on his mouse, making obstacles disappear, whispering wisdom into the minds of the millions, granting everyone good wishes for new beginnings. I can picture the mighty Hanuman, clapping his palms together in vigorous song and celebration. I can think of hundreds of saints and good people who have lived and who still live, those we call gods and gurus, and those we don't even know, all busy, talking, walking, sending out blessings, healing energies, sorting out cosmic karmas, doing whatever it is that we believe they do to make our lives better.

I imagine this cheerful celestial chaos because I cannot think of a more diverse pantheon of deities and divinities ever being asked by their devotees to get into the service of one man's worldly success ever before, certainly not in a U.S. presidential election at that.

What happened this week was not just a diverse group of people finding their hope for their country renewed, but faith in whatever good the divine embodies as well. One might say a lot of prayers were answered this election.

We must acknowledge though that these are not necessarily prayers in a traditional or ritualistic sense. These are just thoughts that hold that something good, and just, should unfold in this world, and that suffering, especially of the man-made sort, should be reduced. And Obama, and his presidency, have come to represent exactly that for many of us.

We did not vote for Obama because we thought he would support any one narrow or rigidly defined concept of religion that we selfishly identified with. We did not even necessarily vote for him because we thought he would do something that would directly benefit us. We voted for him because he seemed to be talking about doing things that would benefit others. It may not be the typical definition of politics, but I think many people voted for Obama on something greater than self-interest. That, to me, seems more like an enlightened, practical and down-to-earth religiosity rather than politics.

The modern, partially secular world we live is a strange thing, with politics, spirituality and everything else all compartmentalized and boxed up, as if our relationship to each other as citizens has nothing to do with our inner meanings about who we are and what we are meant to do on this earth. We may have ugly outbursts of religious exteriorities in politics from time to time, but that does justice neither to the ideals of religion nor secularism. But the Obama phenomenon has somehow grown larger than both.

In the words of his supporters, from among my family and my friends, I see a sense of selflessness more than anything else; physicians who support Obama for spreading access to healthcare, scientists who support Obama for respecting education, and of course, writers and activists who support Obama to signal a departure from the near-extreme selfishness we saw under the guise of policy in recent regimes. I see the Indian-American community, large parts of which used to be Republican for both cultural and economic reasons, increasingly behind Obama, despite arguments that their wealth should make them natural Republicans. Citizens, it appears, now think of citizenship and political choice as something more than merely making some tax savings.

Obama has embodied, with some success at least, the ideal that human beings like to see their own good in the good of others too. I think that marks quite a change in how politics informs our sense of relationship to each other, almost stepping in to do what our best religious teachers encourage us to do. As much as I like Obama for his character, integrity, intelligence, decency and ability to lead, I also have to remember his words that it is not just about him, but about us, all of us. I am amazed, and feel grateful, that so many of us in this country can think about politics not just as what it is going to do for us, but for the rest of us too. I hope we can find a place in the future where both parties, and all shades of politics, can embody that, and the party that once stood for self-reliance as a virtue will learn to distinguish that from sheer selfishness.

For now though, I am happy to take Obama, and his famed Hanuman-locket, and whatever bandwagon of religions and non-religions he has brought on board with him. I am quite assured that God is watching over him, that God is watching over us, simply because we are saying, through our vote, that we are watching over each other too. And I can think of nothing more sublime to symbolize the union of the sacred and the civic than the moment that the first family walked on stage. It is the season of Hindu goddess festivals, and I therefore have to say this with the sensibility we bear when we say this of our mothers, sisters and daughters: it truly felt like the Goddess Lakshmi was there on stage. May prosperity, peace and a plenitude of paths ever come to you America, you hope of the world.