More Buddhism in Congress? This time it could be via Republican Mark Sanford.

Today a special election in South Carolina pits former Governor Mark Stanford, better known as the guy who lied about hiking the Appalachian trail so he could cheat on his wife with an Argentinian woman (whom he now plans to marry) against Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, better known to many as the sister-of-Steven-Colbert. As a recent ABC news headline reads, the South Carolina House Race [is] Defined by People Who Aren’t Running. Along with the famous brother and the Argentinian mistress, Stanford was recently hurt (in fundraising at least) by charges of trespassing on his ex-wife’s property.

Political pundits seem equally divided on the question of whether the race is either completely bizarre or completely inconsequential. According to  Aaron Blake and Sean Sullivan from the Washington Post, the special election is, “just too unique to draw many/any broad political conclusions about.”

But what is of interest here is Sanford’s comments on Buddhism in an interview with Yahoo! News reporter Chris Moody. As Moody states:

I asked him about Buddhism. (Let’s face it, it’s not every day that a southern candidate for national office will drop a Siddhartha Gautama reference in casual conversation.)

Sanford told me that his interest in Buddhism stretched back three years, when he retreated to his remote family farm after the scandalous end to his term as governor when he secretly left the country to have an affair with an Argentine woman who he now plans to marry.

While in exile, Sanford began studying meditation, a practice he continues to this day.

“A buddy of mine said, Mark, you’re becoming a Buddhist Christian. I come from the Christian faith. That’s my faith tradition. But what I do like about Buddhism is the idea of being present,” Sanford said during the car ride. “I think that that’s missed in Western culture, where we’re so busy looking a week out, two weeks out, a month out, a year out and we’re hurried and we’re busy. And I think if there’s any one thing I learned from that year I spent on the farm in the wake of getting out of office and just having a very, very quiet year, is the importance of stillness and quietness. And that extends beyond just the physical location. It extends really into the moment of, Are you really with that person or are you thinking of the next thing you’ve got to do? So I do like very much that part of Buddhism. I think it’s right.”

Sanford declined to describe his meditation techniques, but said, “I’ve tried to be disciplined about a quiet time each day.”

While the election may not send ripples through the political world, having another Buddhist (or Buddhist Christian, or Christian with a Buddhist practice – as we know, defining a ‘Buddhist’ is no easy task) in Congress would be another step toward awareness of the religion – a growing awareness that would hopefully make woeful misrepresentations a thing of the past (or at least we could hope that the misrepresentations would only appeal to a small fringe of society).

According to a recent PEW survey, there are currently 3 Buddhists in Congress: Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Georgia), Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) – the nation’s first Buddhist Senator, and, the most recent addition, Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii).

Like Congressman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who is well-known among Buddhists for his book Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit, Sanford will almost certainly identify as Christian, leaving the religious makeup of Congress unchanged.

However, Mark Sanford’s status as a Republican meditator / Buddhist Christian / Buddhist sympathizer (whatever) should -we can only hope- give pause to much of the right’s rhetoric about the innate Christain-ness of America, to the exclusion of all other religions and value-systems.

That is, if he gets elected.

For more on the ‘culture wars’ around Buddhists in the public sphere I direct you (once again) to Scott Mitchell’s paper:

Christianity is for rubes; Buddhism is for
actors”: U.S. media representations of
Buddhism in the wake of the Tiger Woods’

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