Bristol Smith, manager of a McDonald’s in Maryville, Tennessee, came across Vivek Ramaswamy’s name this spring, shortly after Mr. Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur, announced he was running for president. Mr. Smith was intrigued. He liked the way Mr. Ramaswamy « opposes to wokeness » and his plan to send the military to the southern border to fight the drug cartels. He respected Mr. Ramaswamy’s acumen as a businessman worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Then Mr. Smith, 25, sought Mr. Ramaswamy’s faith. Mr. Smith is an evangelical Christian who recently started a small church that meets in his parents’ home.
« I looked up his religion and saw that he is Hindu, » he recalled. « I was going to vote for him until it came out. » What the country needs is to be « put under God, » as Mr. Smith sees it, and it doesn’t want to take a chance on someone who isn’t a Christian.
At that point, he said, « I’m back on President Trump’s train. »
Mr. Ramaswamy, 37, was raised by Indian immigrants and is a practicing Hindu. This poses a dilemma for some of the conservative Christian voters who make up a significant share of the Republican primary electorate and are accustomed to evaluating candidates not only on their policy propositions, but also on their biographies and personal beliefs, including faith. religious.
For many conservative voters, a candidate’s faith is a signifier of his or her values, lifestyle, loyalties, and priorities as a leader. It’s Sunday morning’s version of the classic question you’d most like to have a beer with: Who would fit in your church?
“It’s another hurdle people have to overcome to come to him,” said Bob Vander Plaats, an influential evangelical leader in Iowa, of Ramaswamy.
Mr. Vander Plaats recently invited Mr. Ramaswamy’s family to a Sunday dinner at his home, where the meal opened with a prayer and a reading from the Bible. He was impressed by Mr. Ramaswamy and said his message was in line with the priorities of many evangelical voters. He mentioned Mr. Ramaswamy’s list of 10 basic ‘truths’, the first of which is, ‘God is real’. (The second: « There are two sexes. »)
« I think it really connects with the public in Iowa, » said Vander Plaats, who hasn’t endorsed a candidate. « He welcomes deeper questions. » Mr. Ramaswamy is voting below 5 percent in the latest national polls.
Mr. Ramaswamy’s approach has been to address the issue head-on and argue that it has more in common with observant Christians than they might think.
“I’m not a Christian. I didn’t grow up in a Christian family,” he told Vander Plaats in June before a small audience at the headquarters of his organization, the Family Leader. « But we share the same Christian values on which this nation was founded. »
In an interview in late June, after leaving a meeting with a few dozen pastors in New Hampshire, Mr. Ramaswamy said his faith taught him that Jesus was « a son of God, absolutely. » (That « a » is a sharp distinction from the central Christian belief that Jesus is THE Son of God. Hinduism is a fluid and expansive tradition, and many believers embrace scores of deities, with some seeing Jesus as a teacher or god.)
While not a Christian, Ramaswamy stressed, he speaks openly about why belief in God matters and why growing secularism in America is bad for the country, and about values like marital fidelity, duty, religious freedom, and self sacrifice.
« I don’t have a quick tone to say, ‘No, no, never mind,' » she said of the theological differences between Hinduism and Christianity. « It’s just that I understand exactly why this should interest you. »
At the end of the campaign, Mr. Ramaswamy refers to biblical stories, including the crucifixion of Jesus, and quotes Thomas Aquinas. He often cites his experience of him attending a « Christian school » in Cincinnati (St. Xavier High School, a Catholic school). And he pits « religions like ours, » which have stood the test of time, with the competing worldviews of « wokeism, climateism, transgenderism, gender ideology, Covidism, » as he told an audience in the New Hampshire.
Mr. Ramaswamy’s campaign released clips of an Iowa pastor comparing him to the Biblical figure King David, and his lengthy response to a New Hampshire man who inquired about his « spiritual beliefs » at a town hall. In Iowa, a woman pressed her hand to Mr. Ramaswamy’s chest and blessed him in the name of Jesus Christ.
“Amen,” said Mr. Ramaswamy as he concluded his prayer.
If Mr. Ramaswamy can stand a chance with evangelical primary voters in the crowded Republican camp, it will be thanks in part to forces beyond his own campaign. Many conservative voters for whom a once shared faith might have been a litmus test now say they are not looking for a « chief pastor, » but someone who shares their political and cultural goals and who will fight on their behalf.
“Theology matters, but the culture has changed. America has changed,” said David Brody, chief political analyst at the Christian Broadcasting Network, who interviewed Ramaswamy. The bigger goal now, Brody said, is to fight « cultural Marxism » and correct the course of « a country gone haywire. »
He contrasted evangelical priorities in next year’s Iowa caucuses with those of 2008 and 2012, when Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum won thanks to their conservative Christian bona fides.
« The lazy narrative that he’s Hindu, so he can’t appeal to evangelicals, I don’t buy at all, » said Mr. Brody.
In recent years, theological boundaries have blurred as political divisions have sharpened. Few churches are split these days over old debates like the exact time of the end times or the role of agency in salvation. About half of American Protestants now say they prefer to attend church with people who share their political views, according to a survey by Lifeway Research.
Mr. Ramaswamy’s emphasis on his belief in one God has a long history for Hindus in the United States, particularly those who speak to white Christian audiences, said Michael Altman, professor of religious studies at the University of Alabama.
Swami Vivekananda, who represented Hinduism in the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893, took pains to portray his faith as monotheistic, in contrast to the stereotypes of his followers as « pagan » polytheists. While the faith has many deities, they are generally subordinated to one ultimate « reality ». Many Hindus and scholars argue that his theology is too complex to be described as entirely monotheistic or entirely polytheistic.
« The obstacle of polytheism is the first thing that needs to be addressed » for many American Christian hearings, Altman said. He sees Mr. Ramaswamy’s tone against « wokeism » as a way to counter stereotypes associating Hinduism with hippies, yoga and vegetarianism.
Some evangelical observers say it was former President Donald J. Trump who opened a new lane for Republican candidates who weren’t necessarily people voters would expect to sit next to in church on Sunday morning. Many evangelical voters embraced the rough-and-tumble thrice-married casino tycoon not because he was one of them, but because they believed he would fight in the public square on their behalf.
Most American Indians, including Hindus, are Democrats. But some Conservatives see an opening with a population that prioritizes family life, marriage and education. As president, Trump hosted Diwali celebrations at the White House, and in April, the Republican National Committee announced a new Hindu-American Indian republican coalition. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a popular figure among a growing cohort of right-wing American Indians, who drew crowds of 50,000 when he appeared with Trump in Houston in 2019. Mr. Ramaswamy spoke last year at a gala organized by the US right-wing group HinduPACT, which is aligned with Modi’s style of nationalism.
Nikki Haley, another Indian-American contender in the 2024 primary, similarly emphasized her background as the daughter of immigrants. But although Ms. Haley was raised a Sikh, she converted to Christianity and now attends a large Methodist church in South Carolina. Bobby Jindal, a Louisiana Republican who ran for president in 2016, was raised a Hindu but described himself as an « Evangelical Catholic ».
Mr. Ramaswamy attends the same temple in Dayton, Ohio that he attended as a child and is still attended by his parents.
One of the temple’s priests officiated at his wedding in New York City in 2015. He, his wife, and their two young children attend the temple during the holidays and to celebrate special occasions, including their youngest son’s first birthday in early July , his wife, Dr. Apoorva Ramaswami, said.
Dr Ramaswamy, who discussed the family’s faith publicly during the election campaign, said there were more similarities between committed believers across traditions than between serious and nominal adherents within the same faith.
« The fact that we are believers, that we have that sense of humility, that we raise our children with real respect, awe and love for God – that’s so much more unifying than the name of the God that people pray to, » Dr. Ramaswamy said.
The question for her husband’s campaign is whether enough Christian voters will agree.
Ken Bosse, pastor of New Life Church in Raymond, NH, described himself as « an extreme follower of Jesus Christ » who, all things considered, would rather have a Christian in the White House. But he would be open to the right candidate who isn’t a Christian, noting that « we’ve had some professing Christians in that position who didn’t follow biblical principles. »
Mr. Bosse invited Mr. Ramaswamy to give a short talk at his church on a Sunday morning in April. He liked the candidate’s emphasis on reclaiming a positive American identity, he said, and his story as a self-made millionaire who is the son of immigrants.
At the moment, however, Mr. Bosse is leaning towards supporting Mr. Trump.