Did Tulsi Gabbard’s National Ambitions Just Suffer a Political Hit?

A “New Yorker” magazine profile raises questions about a circumstantial relationship with controversial spiritual mentor Chris Butler—but also spurs charges of religious intolerance.
Tulsi Gabbard
Photo: Courtesy of Tulsi Gabbard


The photo is pure and ethereal: U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard in a black rash guard floating on a surfboard above a sun-splashed Pacific. But anyone who’s felt a tad confused keeping up with the extracurricular political moves of Gabbard—including her (possible) job interview with then President-elect Donald Trump, her secret mission to Syria, and open alliance with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist—will likely not find clarity in the Nov. 6 issue of The New Yorker, which arrived in many Hawai‘i mailboxes last week.


SEE ALSO: Who is Tulsi Gabbard? It’s Complicated


The profile by The New Yorker staff writer Kelefa Sanneh starts by positioning Gabbard as very much the rising star of the Democratic Party (Bernie Sanders wing) and someone with bipartisan potential. Surfer, vegetarian, first Hindu elected to Congress, “Hawaiian action figure”—the story checks off all the exotic boxes. It approvingly notes how her tours of duty in the National Guard ground a patriotism that is also skeptical of military intervention as a policy. The article quotes Rachel Maddow’s early assessment: “She is on the fast track to being very famous.”


Then the tone turns dark. After describing a Memorial Day appearance at a veterans cemetery in Kaua‘i, the story shifts to describing Gabbard’s rise in politics as someone who was “social conservative, pro-life and active in the fight against same-sex marriage,” before publicly repudiating these positions. (It misses pointing out that Gabbard changed her mind while running against social conservative, pro-life, anti-same-sex candidate Mufi Hannemann.) It notes her tendency to disconcert mainstream Democratic coalitions by joining Republicans on votes, her appearances on Fox News, her “political disaster” of a visit to Syria.


And then it gets to Chris Butler. The Kailua surfer-turned-guru has been linked publicly to the Gabbards for years. The representative’s father and mother signed on early for Butler’s platform of 1960s-style vegetarianism and yoga. They were there as it morphed, collecting spiritual traits and beliefs from the New Age movement, the Hare Krishnas and Hinduism, before Butler reorganized himself as the Science of Identity Foundation—which became a stealth political action force.


Most of this is not news in Hawai‘i. The connections between Chris Butler and Gabbard’s parents, her husband and campaign staff are explored in various articles, including this 2015 one and in HONOLULU’s pages, dating back to 2004. The latter prompted Tulsi Gabbard to email the magazine, accusing it of acting as a “conduit for … homosexual extremist supporters of Ed Case.” (It should be noted that HONOLULU has written about other Kailua cults not connected to Chris Butler.)


SEE ALSO: Who is Mike Gabbard?


In the wake of the article, criticism of The New Yorker and author Sanneh have come from several points of the political compass, from Hindus who see religious and perhaps racial bigotry—a subject Gabbard herself brings up—and a few who question the sensationalist aspects of “cult” coverage in the media. Writing in the Hindu-American Foundation blog, Aseem Shukla argues that “any notion that Sanneh is interested in what Gabbard believes about progressive politics, about Sanders, about Trump, about climate change—just about anything that a politician would be asked about—is dispelled when a full 4,000 words, entirely half of the essay, is yet another project in otherizing Gabbard’s faith journey.”


You can read the entire New Yorker article here.