The connection here to a robust Theravada Buddhist philosophy and practice is, admittedly, exceedingly tenuous. More than anything, the notion that these brothers might not be Christian (even if they already were) opened the door a little more to the possibilities of religion beyond the Abrahamic context of nineteenth century America. Was it an introduction of Buddhism at all? I’m leaning towards doubt.*
In the broader civil rights context, the brothers were true pioneers in Asian American history. They were probably the first Asians to marry white Americans, to be American citizens and to vote in American elections. In less contemporarily popular American firsts, they also grew tobacco, owned slaves and their sons fought for the Confederacy in the American Civil War! At this point in his speech, Todd Perreira smiled at the audience, stuck his tongue in his cheek, and yelled, “Yay Theravada!”
I look forward to his published research, which includes much more than the (again, admittedly tenuous) story of Chang and Eng Bunker. Although most Theravada temples were established by Asian immigrants who came after 1965, Buddhist Americans seem all too quick to forget those who came before. Some of my favorite stories include the Buddhist monarch who offered Lincoln assistance in the Civil War, or even the Buddhist monarch born on American soil.
*Update: Many thanks to a certain scholar who kindly pointed out off-the-blog that as the Bunkers self-identified as Baptists, they and their descendants deserve to have this remembered. The post has been changed accordingly.