The POTUS and the Lotus: The Interfaith Family of Kamala Harris
November 11, 2020
With Kamala Harris as our new Vice President elect, interfaith families reach a new level of prominence in America. Harris is not only the first woman and the first Black person to be Vice President; she will also be the first interfaith kid and the first person in an interfaith marriage. Harris epitomizes Generation Interfaith: she represents a religious trifecta with a Christian parent, a Hindu parent, and a Jewish husband.
“I grew up going to a black Baptist Church and a Hindu temple,” Harris told the Los Angeles Times, affirming that both religions were formative in her childhood. And at her wedding to her husband, attorney Douglas Emhoff, they included both a flower garland from the Hindu wedding tradition and breaking a glass from the Jewish tradition. So a self-identified Baptist with a Hindu mother and a Jewish husband is now a heartbeat away from the Presidency. We can only hope this helps to normalize the rich religious complexity many of us now embody personally and in our families.
Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a Tamil immigrant from India, met her father, Donald Harris, a Black immigrant from Jamaica, when they were both doctoral students at UC Berkeley. They gave both their daughters Sanskrit names to reenforce their connection to Hindu culture–Kamala means lotus and is a form of the goddess Lakshmi. Their mother took Kamala and her sister Maya back to Madras to spend time with their Hindu family. But the girls also attended church with a neighbor after their parents divorced. This was a mother who wanted her children to have bonds of affection with both family religions.
Harris is close to her Jewish stepchildren and in-laws and does a hilarious but affectionate impression of her Jewish mother-in-law. She’s also close to her husband’s ex-wife, Kerstin, who hails from Minnesota. The stepkids call Kamala “Momala” (a Yiddishism), and Harris has written that, “We sometimes joke that our modern family is almost a little too functional.”
It’s worth noting that another interfaith kid, Maya Rudolph, played Kamala Harris in an Emmy-nominated series of appearances in the Saturday Night Live primary campaign skits, and returned November 7 for the start of what should be four more years of playing Harris. Rudolph’s dad is an Ashkenazi Jew; her mother was Black singer Minnie Riperton. So here we have a Black interfaith kid with Jewish and Christian heritage playing a Black interfaith kid with Christian and Hindu heritage and a Jewish husband.
With interfaith marriage at almost forty percent in the last decade in the US, and twenty-five percent of US adults now hailing from interfaith families, we should no longer be surprised when prominent people come from interfaith families. When I give lectures on Interfaith Families as Bridge-Builders, I put up a slide filled with headshots of activists and leaders with interfaith heritage. Kamala Harris was already on that slide, but this week, I added Mauree Turner, who just because the first Muslim elected to the Oklahoma state legislature. They have a Christian parent and a Muslim parent, and identify as nonbinary (using they/she pronouns). And they are the first out nonbinary person to be elected to any state legislature. Of her campaign, Turner said, “This was about drawing space—not fighting for a seat at the table, but creating a new table altogether.” For me, this kind of outside-the-boxes leadership is a hallmark of interfaith kids.
When Joe Biden chose Kamala Harris as his running mate back in August, the New York Times described Harris with many of the phrases and images that were used for Barack Obama (another interfaith kid): “shaped by life in two worlds”; “without ever feeling entirely anchored to either”; “difficult to pin down”; and “by virtue of her identity, not like any other.” The language referred to insider/outsider political status, but also clearly echoes her complex racial and religious heritage.
With Harris as our incoming Vice President, we are one step closer to the time when language that telegraphs discomfort with racial and religious ambiguity starts to wane. Generation Interfaith (that is to say, every post-boomer generation from now on), is starting to take up space, to tell our stories, and to rise to leadership. We need these leaders—people with rich and complex heritage and multiple religious claims and practices—to inspire us and to demonstrate the benefits, not just the challenges, of our experiences.
About the Author
Journalist Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). This piece was adapted from a piece she wrote in August for her blog, onbeingboth.com.