Minority Political Success Stories:

Here's the question for today: Who are now the highest-ranked, and who have been the highest-ranked

  1. Atheist or Agnostic, expressly self-described (it's not enough that the person have no known religious sensibilities; he has to have openly described himself as such, much as people of other religious groups often openly describe themselves as such)
  2. Baha'i
  3. Buddhists
  4. Hindus
  5. Muslims
  6. Sikhs
  7. Armenian-Americans
  8. Filipino-Americans
  9. Georgian-Americans (and I don't mean of the Jimmy Carter variety)
  10. Iranian-Americans
  11. Korean-Americans
  12. Thai-Americans
  13. and
  14. Vietnamese-Americans
in U.S. government positions, federal or state, appointed or elected. For our purposes, though, let's say that the rank of an office is generally inversely proportional to the number of people who hold that sort of office, so the President (1) beats U.S. Supreme Court Justices (9) who beat Cabinet officials (15) who beat Governors (50) who beat U.S. Senators (100) who beat state Supreme Court Justices (roughly 350, I think) who beat U.S. Representatives (435) and so on. On the other hand, I reserve the right to downgrade un-influential offices — there are fewer state Secretaries of State than state Supreme Court Justices, but I say the latter beat the former, and I'll brook no argument on that. Also, the list above was chosen rather arbitrarily (though one guiding principle was that I tried to choose relatively tough ones; Greek Orthodox and Mormons, for instance, are pretty easy).

I give a few answers that I think I know below; please post your own answers in Comments. (I won't alter my original answers, so please note that a commenter may have bettered them.) Each answer should (1) include the person's name and position, (2) in cases where there might be any controversy, proof, preferably a link to a site that confirms this, and (3) say whether he's the current highest or the all-time highest. Also, please check all previous comments, as well as my answers, to make sure that yours (4) isn't a duplicate (make sure to check my answers, hidden below, to see if yours duplicate them), and (5) hasn't been trumped by a clearly higher-ranked official that has already been named. More broadly, (6) please read the question and the rules carefully, and (7) please don't post arguments about why the rules are sound or unsound or how they should be amended.

UPDATE: A reader asks why I lump together atheists and agnostics. In theory, the two may be quite different, but my sense is that in practice people have such different definitions of the terms that "I am an agnostic" and "I am an atheist" don't really reliably distinguish the two.

FURTHER UPDATE: I'd like the comments to be a good and readable source of answers for readers, so I've deleted some comments that were erroneous, duplicative, nonresponsive, and the like. Don't take it personally . . . .

Justin (mail) (www):
I'd be surprised if Chief Justice Frankfurter was not at least tied as the most influential expressly agnostic American politician, seeing that I can't possibly think of a VP or a President that would fit that mold.
4.28.2005 3:51pm
Justin (mail) (www):
PS I'm sure there's going to be a debate about whether Frankfurter was sufficiently self-expressed in his agnosticism. I lend as the best personal evidence of him actually being an agnostic his famed quote about Justice Vinson's passing:

"This is the first indication that I have ever had that there is a God."
4.28.2005 3:54pm
Meg R (mail):
Ben Cayetano, a Filipino American, was Governor of Hawaii for quite some time.
4.28.2005 4:10pm
BSG (mail):
As the question is currently worded, I think you have to count Gov. Deukmejian as the all-time highest-ranked Iranian-American, as well. His parents were Armenian, yes, but they were from Iran.

To make the question interesting, perhaps we should interpret Iranian-American as Persian-American?
4.28.2005 4:11pm
Joshua Hosseinof:
Iranian-American - Jimmy Delshad on the Beverly Hills City Council or Nina Shokraii Rees as Assistant Deputy Secretary US Dept of Education
4.28.2005 4:11pm
Roger (mail):
Filipino-American Alltime: Ben Cayetano, former governor of Hawaii
4.28.2005 4:11pm
Kim Scarborough (mail) (www):
Well, since Frankfurter is up for debate, I'll put up Jesse Ventura as the highest-ranking Atheist or Agnostic for now. He had the famous quote, "Religion is a crutch for weak-minded people," which seems pretty unequivocal.
4.28.2005 4:14pm
BSG (mail):
Iranian-American-other-than-Deukmejian: Jimmy Delshad just barely edges out Ross Mirkarimi, whose father was Iranian. Mirkarimi is on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which has 11 members, while the Beverly Hills City Council apparently has only 5.
4.28.2005 4:21pm
John Coleman (mail) (www):
I think it is safe to say that while many of the founders were Christians or Deists, Thomas Jefferson would have to be ranked an agnostic at best. Reading his letters he is relatively hostile to religion--particularly Christianity
4.28.2005 4:24pm
Kim Scarborough (mail) (www):
Oh yeah, Jerry Brown is a Buddhist.
4.28.2005 4:25pm
nd_eric_77 (mail):
For current highest ranking elected Vietnamese-American, I would say Representative Hubert Vo (D-Houston).
4.28.2005 4:32pm
Joshua Hosseinof:
Korean American all time - Congressman Jay Kim (1994-2000)
Korean American currently - Mayor Harry Kim of Hawaii county
4.28.2005 4:34pm
yama (mail):
Japanese Americans (Buddhist, Shinto, other): Cabinet Member(s), Senators, Congressman, Judges, Sheriffs, Local School Board Members..... Many of course are from Hawaii. Some of the most well known. like Inouye, fought with the most decorated unit of its size and length of time in battle in U.S. military history--the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
4.28.2005 4:36pm
Patrick McKenzie (mail):
Ah, found it. The evidence of Mineta's Buddhism is very circumstantial -- its a line from a speech he gave to Congress which is ambiguous. In a eulogy for a constituent he says that "we"/"the community" remembered him for his contributions to his Buddhist church, but the community being referred to could easily be the general community, or the community of Japanese-Americans, or the community of Asian-Americans, or just a throwaway line.

So evidence is fairly thin to claim that he is Buddhist. Not to say he isn't necessarily, but I wouldn't feel confident with a disclaimer-free declarative statement.

text of speech

Patrick McKenzie
4.28.2005 4:37pm
Korean American all time: Wendy Lee Gramm, chair of the CFTC (don't know whether that beats Jay Kim).
4.28.2005 4:38pm
Note that Hubert Vo is a TX state rep, not US.
4.28.2005 4:41pm
Joshua Hosseinof:
Filipino Americans All-time = Benjamin Cayetano in State legislature, then Lt. Governor then Governor, or Mario Ramil or Benjamin Menor on Hawaii Supreme Court.

Korean-American Currently - Ronald Moon - Chief Justice Hawaii Supreme Court
4.28.2005 4:42pm
Stephen Aslett (mail):
The highest ranking atheist-for-sure is probably California Governor Culbert Olson.
4.28.2005 4:44pm
Muslim: Howabout current Director of the National Institute of Health, Elias Zerhouni?


(All of the other Arab-Americans I can think of - like John Sununu and Spencer Abraham - are Christian I think...)
4.28.2005 5:14pm
Thief (mail) (www):
Info on U.S. Muslim politicians:

In the 2000 elections, 700 Muslims ran for public office, 153 were elected. In 2002, only about 30 ran and 10 were elected. In 2004, according to the article, about 100 ran, no word on how many were elected. (The highest one mentioned in the article, Mohamed Khairullah, is a city councilor in Prospect Park, New Jersey.)

Prof. Volokh, I must say that this is one of the hardest internet scavenger hunts I've ever been on. Even with Google, information about the race and religion of public officials is very hard to come by.

I think that's a good thing.
4.28.2005 5:19pm
Steve Sachs (www):
I don't know if this outranks the director of the NIH, but our current ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is Muslim.
4.28.2005 5:48pm
Joshua Hosseinof:
Sikh currently - Uttam Singh Dhillon Assistant Attorney General US DOJ
Sikh alltime - Dalip Singh Saund elected to congress in 1956
4.28.2005 5:53pm
KW (mail):
Mormons are easy? Sheesh. I had no idea.

(By the way, I think the answer for Mormons would have to be Ezra Taft Benson, former Secretary of Agriculture. Right? Is that the easy answer you were thinking of?)
4.28.2005 6:17pm
Steve in CA (mail):
Alan Greenspan was a member of Ayn Rand's inner circle. Does that count as openly identifying himself as an atheist?
4.28.2005 6:46pm
I thought Zalmay Khalilzad was rceently moved over to serve as ambassador to Iraq (or is he on his way?), perhaps the most important ambassadorship these days.
4.28.2005 7:11pm
Roger (mail):
KW: answer for Mormons would be Orrin Hatch, Sen -UT (R).
4.28.2005 7:52pm
Ben (mail):
I think for Mormons, actually David M. Kennedy is higher than Benson because Sec. of the Treasury (for Nixon, I believe) is closer to the presidency in the line of succession than Sec. of Agriculture. But does that beat Harry Reid? (who is the current choice, and probably why Prof. Volokh thought it was easy.)
4.28.2005 7:53pm
Roger (mail):
KW: I take it back re: Hatch - cabinet trumps senate. Sorry.
4.28.2005 7:54pm
A Brian (mail):
Atheists are also diverse, though they tend to group around the "weak" and "strong" labels. Arnold has, in the past, admitted to being an atheist.
4.28.2005 8:01pm
XX Fredrik Nyman (mail):
Taiwanese-American: Elaine Chao, Secretary of Labor.

Cuban-American: Mel Martinez (HUD), Carlos M. Gutierrez (Commerce).
4.28.2005 9:12pm
puf (mail):
Posner is an atheist/agnostic.
4.28.2005 10:44pm
Highest Ranking Native American: Vice President Charles Curtis, 1929-1933. evidence

Note the question called for U.S. govt positions, so the heads of sovereign tribes don't count.
4.28.2005 10:47pm
William Fellers (mail):
I'm an agnostic that never uses the term atheist. I'm truly not sure whether or not God or gods exist. Sometimes I almost believe and other times I don't at all. Maybe I'm just a wishy-washy atheist (or theist)? Maybe it's just my training in physical science, but I really can't believe or dis-believe anything without proof.
4.28.2005 11:04pm
Jeff Boulier (mail) (www):
How Indian do you have to be to qualify as an Indian? Or Iranian to count as a Iranian? I recall that one of the traditions that failed in the past election was that the winner would be the one with the most royal blood. This was Kerry, who descends in some fashion from a Persian dynasty (as well as various European nobles.)

Also, to quote from John Derbyshire in National Review's The Corner:

"Among other notable conservatives of part-Indian ancestry, let us not forget Calvin Coolidge. He held a dim childhood memory of being taken to visit his half-Iroquoi great-grandmother (I think this is right). She was smoking a pipe"
4.29.2005 12:02am
Syd (mail):
Governors trump Senators, so the current highest-ranking current Mormons are Governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Jon Huntsman of Utah
4.29.2005 12:14am
Fellers: So what political office do you occupy, exactly?
4.29.2005 12:20am
Syd (mail):
That means George Romney (Nixon's Secretary of HUD) is another Mormon Cavinet member.

If Spiro Agnew was Greek Orthodox, he's the obvious Greek-American.

I'm not sure where Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would rank, Gen. John M. Shalikashvili's parents came from Georgia, although he was born in Poland.
4.29.2005 12:56am
And where is the question about the highest-ranked Russian-American? Or at least exSoviet-American?
4.29.2005 11:17am
Felix of Gainesville (mail) (www):

Chinese-American: Governor Gary Locke of Washington State.
4.29.2005 11:46am
Felix of Gainesville (mail) (www):

Oops, I mean state of Washington.
4.29.2005 11:48am
I would have to disagree with you about Jefferson. He was a deist. He even prepared his own translation of the Bible, minus the stuff deists find objectionable, like all the miracles.
4.29.2005 12:13pm
countertop (mail):
First, on the issue of ranking. Shouldn't a leadership position within the Senate or House count much differently than simply being a Senator (Being Majority leader is awfully important, as is being chair of some committees ie: Judiciary)

Nevertheless, the mormon issue is quite interesting seeing as overall how incredibly successful they have been politically.

Two of the frontrunners for the 2008 Republican Nomination are Mormons (Michael Leavitt, who is also Sec. of Health and Human Services and probably controls more federal grant money than any other Cabinet member) and Massachussets Gov. Mitt Romney (is a governor higher ranked than a Cabinet secretary). Shouldn't that count extra? As a front runner for the nomination, they will have a tremendous impact on the issues their party takes (and ultimatly the direction of the country) in 2008.

Of course, there are a number of other mormons in the U.S. Senate: Senators Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett (Utah), Senator Mike Crapo (Idaho), Gordon Smith (Oregon), and Senate Minority Leader (Harry Reid).

Currently in the House are Jeff Flake (AZ), John Doolittle (CA), Wally Herger (CA), Howard McKeon (CA), Ernest Istook (OK), Mike Simpson (ID), Thomas Udall (NM), Mark Udall (CO), Rob Bishop (UT), and Chris Cannon (UT).

Udall, of course, comes from a long line of politicans including former house member and Secretary of Interior under Kennedy Stewart Udall and former House member Morris Udall who finished second to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 Democratic presidential primary and also served as Chairman of what is now the House Resources Committee where he doubled the size of the national parks program and tripled the size of the national wilderness program.

Also, of note, it might be pointed out that the Udall family can give both the Bushs and the Kennedy's a run for the money as all the Udalls are related (Mark is Stewarts son and Tom is Morris's son) and are cousins of Senator Gordon Smith.

FWIW - I'm not a Mormon, I just think their history is fascinating.
4.29.2005 12:18pm
Snacktime (mail):
Asst U.S. Attorney General Viet Dinh is Vietnamese
4.29.2005 12:34pm
Ninth Cir. Judge Dorothy Nelson must be the highest ranking Baha'i ever to hold federal office.
4.29.2005 2:33pm
NickM (mail) (www):
As far as Vietnamese-Americans go, California State Assemblyman Van Tran holds the same level office as Texas State Representative Hubert Vo, although Tran is 1 of 80 and Vo is 1 of 150 (and from a smaller state). Whether either gentleman outranks Viet Dinh is a matter for Eugene's determination.
Minnesota State Senator Mee Moua could arguably qualify among Thai-Americans. She was born in Laos, and lived in a refugee camp in Thailand from age 5 to age 9.
As far as non-Armenian Iranian-Americans go, San Francisco is a City and County, so a member of its Board of Supervisors would outrank a city councilman.
For current Armenian-Americans, California State Senator Charles Poochigian represents a district that is larger in population (by approximately one-third) than a Congressional district. Anyone outranking him would likely either be in federal office or statewide office.

4.29.2005 2:59pm
Tom Veal (mail) (www):
If your statement that Greek Orthodox is easy was based on a certain ill-famed Vice President, let me note that Spiro Agnew was an Episcopalian.
4.29.2005 3:17pm
Anthony Argyriou (mail) (www):
For A Brian: Arnold Schwarzenegger calls himself Catholic these days:
4.29.2005 3:35pm
John Coleman (mail) (www):

On your claim that Jefferson is Deist not Agnostic: You are probably right.

The way I see it, though, there was a thin line between Jefferson's for of Deism and agnosticism. Here is a good source for a few choice writings.
4.29.2005 3:36pm
Adrian (mail):
Hindu: Satveer Chaudhury, MN state senator
First Hindu to be elected to State Senate
4.29.2005 3:49pm
What about Gullahs (or Creoles), or Cajuns? (Are you leaving domestic raciocultural minorities that aren't based on religion out of your list?)

Anyway, I believe the highest ranking gullah is Justice Clarence Thomas.
4.29.2005 4:04pm

how about more from countries where we've sent troops or gone to war or dropped bombs since Vietnam?

Grenadans? Libyans? Salvadorans? Panamanians? Iraqis? Somali? Haitians? Serbs? Sudanese? Columbians? Afghanis? Am I leaving any important ones out?

How about some smaller ethnic groups like Kurds, Basques, Macedonians, Albanians, Montenegrins, Roma (and possibly related ethnicities like Vlachs and Irish Travellers)?

Or, given gullahs, more probably-multiracial isolate groups: Melungeons, Canadian Metis, Louisiana Redbones, etc?

Another issue that would be fascinating, since there's such a social class divide, but hard to suss out would be: who's the highest ranking Latino with the most native ancestry?
4.29.2005 4:42pm
Say, are there any (all-time) higher-ranking non-Jewish immigrants from German-speaking countries than Arnold Schwarzenegger?
4.29.2005 4:55pm
Norm (mail):
about Mormons in the House--you missed some other Congressmen:
Gibbons (NV), Matheson (UT), Faleomavaega (American Samoa), and Boswell (IA) (RLDS, not LDS, but still 'Mormon'--and you counted both Udalls). May be more.

What is HI Senator Akaka's ethnicity? (does anyone know?)
4.30.2005 2:48am
noahp (mail) (www):
Highest-ranking non-Iranian Armenian might be congressman Chip Pashayan (R-CA), from the Fresno area in the 1980s.
It is interesting to me that there have been so few openly Muslim elected officials. Many Arab-Americans have held elected office (Mary Rose Oakar, Rep. from Cleveland, Spencer Abraham, Darrell Issa, etc.) but they have always been Christians.
Answer to Brent's question: Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz under Rutherford B. Hayes in the late 19th century was a German immigrant.
Answer to Norm's question: Akaka is native Hawaiian.
As for the whole Frankfurter controversy, I would note that it was not uncommon for practicing Jews at the time to be agnostic or atheist. There are many Jewish sects today which are atheist and agnostic which still celebrate Jewish religious ceremonies; secular humanists, etc. It is a long tradition.
4.30.2005 1:50pm
Abe (mail):
The vast majority--about 75 percent--of Arab-Americans are Christian, descended from Syrian or Lebanese Christians who emigrated around the 1890-1920. That's where almost all the Arab-Americans who hold prominent positions come from.

Only about a third of the US Muslim population is Arab-descended. There are many more South-Asian and African-American Muslims that Arab-American Muslims. I'd thus expect to see them in higher positions that Arab-American Muslims.

--Abe Delnore
4.30.2005 2:01pm
Although Mormons isn't necessarily the focus of the thread, there's been a high-ranking Sec of Agriculture several decades back - Ezra T. Benson, who went on to become President/leader of the Mormons.

Pretty successful group, for "outside the mainstream"
4.30.2005 2:45pm
Wacky Hermit (mail) (www):
Mormons: Marriner Stoddard Eccles, head of the Federal Reserve under Roosevelt. He only comes to mind because he comes from the city in which I currently live, and I was pleasantly surprised to read that in a book on Roosevelt's administration. The Eccles name is all over this town-- half the public buildings are named Eccles something or other.,MARINER.html

Does chairman of the Fed trump Ezra Taft Benson's Secretary of Agriculture?
4.30.2005 7:15pm
Abe (mail):
Including Mormons in the list of minorities is a bit odd since Utah is majority Mormon and will thus almost always have a Mormon officials.

I don't think any of the groups in the Volokh list occupy this position: minorities nationally but overwhelming majorities in a particular state.

I think, by the way, the highest-ranking non-Mormon in Utah is Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson.

--Abe Delnore
4.30.2005 9:02pm
I think Mormon officials within the state of Utah might not count as minorities ... however, including national officials is remarkable. Especially when many, including Benson (ID), the Udalls, and most of the 15-18 Congresspeople I found info come from states where Mormons aren't a majority.

Case in point, I think it's pretty remarkable that Paula Hawkins, a Mormon, was Senator from Florida. Surely Mormons are not a majority there/ She was the first non-nepotism woman Senator at that.

Oh, and I found out that Senator Akaka is native Hawaiian... does that make him the highest ranking Native American currently?

Interesting info on non-Muslim Arab-Americans. I'd love a link.
4.30.2005 11:48pm
Nikos A. Leverenz (mail):
The highest ranking Native Hawaiian of all time would be former Hawai'i Governor John Waihe'e, the predecessor to the hightest ranking Filipino-American of all time (the already mentioned Ben Cayetano).

In terms of highest-ranking Japanese-American, Gov. George Ariyoshi (who preceded Waihee) would be above Sen. Dan Inouye, who's been in the Senate since 1960.

That would make Hawai'i the source of three different (and consectuive) "top" minorites. But I guess by Mr. Volokh's calculus Norm Mineta is all time Japanese-American champ? I don't understand why cabinet secretaries are above governors, other than numeric rigidities -- perhaps because governors are among those now routinely appointed to cabinet positions?

Also, is it really correct to place governors ahead of senators, considering the fact that most governors aspire to the Senate -- whereas senators run for governor mostly if their party isn't strong enough to field another candidate?

How about including sexual orientation? Or is that discounted because it's not a suspect classification ... yet?
5.1.2005 2:09am
How about Jews (being of Jewish heritage myself)? We know that Lieberman was the first Jewish nominee for VP, and is probably the current highest ranking Jew (if you give him bonus points over the other 10 Jewish US Senators for his VP nomination). Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor is in the House leadership. Former Press Secretary Ari Fleischer might have been higher than a Senator if we go by Eugene's "numbers" determination of rank, although that seems a bit screwy. Using the current order of presidential succession to rank cabinet members (I haven't bothered to go back and look at past succession statutes) former Secretary of State Henry Kissenger is likely the alltime highest ranking Jewish official of the US government, followed by Harold Brown, former Secretary of Defense under Carter. But what about former US Senator Judah Benjamin as all the alltime #1? He served as attorney general, secretary of war, and secretary of state in the cabinet of Jefferson Davis in the Confederate government?
5.2.2005 6:32pm
Actually, Larry Summers and Michael Blumenthal, both Jewish Treasury Secretaries (Bush I and Carter) would rank higher than Brown under the presidential succession ranking.
5.2.2005 6:36pm