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I think the president should be an atheist,” my sixteen-year-old cousin said plainly over the breakfast table. She is my cousin from my wife’s side of the family, who is Indian American — Hindu Brahmins — steeped in politics and well aware of problems at the intersection of church and state, or at least mosque, temple and state.
She was responding to my question of what would make a great president. It surprised me that she viewed atheism as the foremost and presumably a desirable requirement for political leadership, particularly as her devout Hindu father sat at the table across from me, a Korean American Christian.
Yet, I think I understand what she’s getting at. Religion and spirituality are personally good things, but in politics and real life, they seem to be what economists call inefficiencies. And we’re too pragmatic to tolerate these persistent inefficiencies, aren’t we? We value stoicism and precision. Religion, while perhaps not the opiate that Marx considered, can simply be dismissed as impractical for many of us. We were raised on criticism and discipline (arguably, a religion of a different sort), which leads to the question: What place does something so impractical as faith have in Asian American life?
Pragmatism has a cost as well, which is also to say faith and spirituality are not all bad. Life and love cannot only exist on spreadsheets. It’s possible the richness of our spirituality, while not always efficient, could deepen the ways in which we Asian Americans express ourselves. Asian spirituality tends to emphasize the individual meditative and self-control aspects (it’s little wonder the individualistic American consumerist culture latches onto piecemeal religious practices), but do Asian Americans enrich the greater community compelled by our faith? Asian Americans have always been viewed as wonderful technicians, professionals and creatives, but when do we inspire the nation by our acts of compassion and justice?
I wonder if Asian America could produce someone who exudes confident and competent leadership in the spiritual sense. Does our penchant for the practical and profitable lend itself to the formation of an Asian American version of a Martin Luther King Jr., or aMother Teresa, or a Mahatma Gandhi? A Bono or an Albert Schweitzer? Asian Americans are spiritual in the privatized, mind-your-own-business sense, but have we the conviction and strength of character to alter the public landscape because of our beliefs?
I’ve found faith and spirituality a compelling dimension of Asian American culture and life requiring further exploration, not because atheists or theists need to be convinced otherwise, but because faith has yet a meaningful role in private and in public. The answer is not simply to toss our faith aside, but to understand where we can integrate spirituality in our own lives and in the lives of others in inefficient, yet significant ways.