Christian voters and a Hindu candidate
Evangelical support for non-Christian candidates is not new
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Vivek Ramaswamy is running for president, and if you heard his credentials without knowing his name, you’d think he was a normal Republican candidate for high office. He’s from Ohio, grew up upper or upper middle class, went to a Catholic high school, attended Ivy league institutions for college and law school, and works in venture capitalism. Nothing too out of the ordinary.
But Ramaswamy is a practicing Hindu. That doesn’t seem to be hurting him too much among potential Republicans in 2023. He doesn’t have the poll numbers of the Trump juggernaut or even Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, but he’s comfortably in third place in the latest FiveThirtyEight poll. He’s outpacing a self-identified evangelical, Mike Pence, and as of August, his support was increasing. Its customary in primary season for evangelicals to worry over (or celebrate) a candidate’s respective religious views. Although some ministers have denounced Ramaswamy—a pastor I have never heard of in my life warned he wanted to put strange gods in the White House—there haven’t been any prominent evangelicals publicly worried over the idea of a Hindu in the White House.
A Washington Post article on Evangelical apprehension over a non-Christian as president quoted the same pastor, Hank Kunneman. A Rolling Stone article that warned that Christian nationalists were opposing Ramaswamy’s candidacy quoted—you guessed it—this same Kunneman. So, it seems that the press is focused on only one minister publicly worried about Ramaswamy’s Hinduism. This seems like a significant departure from the perceived treatment of Mitt Romney in 2012, when evangelicals supposedly would balk at voting for the Massachusetts governor. In fact, white evangelicals voted for Romney at the same rate they voted for George W. Bush.
The religious beliefs of presidential candidates, it seems, still is a bigger deal to observers of evangelicals than it is to evangelicals—at least at this point. Ramaswamy’s candidacy is a helpful reminder that evangelical voting patterns haven’t changed that much in over 40 years, and that they probably aren’t as “hypocritical” as their detractors allege.
As a candidate Ramaswamy doesn’t hide his Hinduism, but it is not a centerpiece of his campaign, either. He talks respectfully about Judeo-Christian values. One voter asked him “How does your belief in your God inform policies that were originally informed by the belief in, fear of and obedience to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?” Ramaswamy’s initial answer deftly addressed the spirit of the question but not the letter. The United States, he declared, “was founded on Judeo-Christian values, there’s no doubt about it. It is a historical fact.”
With that foundation in place, Ramaswamy could argue that his Hindu beliefs shared significant community with Christian and more broadly Abrahamic faiths. “We share the same values, the same Judeo-Christian values in power,” he announced to voters in New Hampshire. He also asked Republican voters if they wanted in the White House “somebody who lives by those values and shares those values and will govern according to those values even if I don’t check the box of being a Christian in name?” Or if they wanted “somebody who’s a Christian in name but may not, in any sense, live according to those values?” Finally, he reminded potential voters he was running to be commander in chief, not pastor in chief.
If 2012 voting patterns are any sign, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism didn’t affect how evangelical voters treated him at the polls. It’s questionable that Ramaswamy’s Hinduism would be problematic either. Evangelicals, in fact, don’t particularly prioritize the personal religiosity of potential presidents, and they never have. Throughout the early republic the personal religious habits of potential presidents were always less important to voters than their willingness to uphold a Christian socio-moral order.
This often gets said clumsily—most evangelical pastors in 2023 are not trained to address political theology—but for the most part evangelical Protestants want what they see as natural—what the elite media often calls “traditional”—morality to be upheld.
This political ecumenicism didn’t start with Donald Trump. It started as early as 1827, when Ezra Stiles Ely, a popular Presbyterian minister, grew concerned that evangelicals were not taking the faith of politicians seriously enough. God, argued Ely, “requires a Christian faith, a Christian profession, and a Christian practice of all our public men; and we as Christian citizens ought, by the publication of our opinions, to require the same.”
Most evangelicals in that era never affirmed Ely’s belief that God required a Christian president, and in their practical politics most evangelicals don’t believe that today either. What they did believe is that the president is supposed to uphold a political order that protects natural law, what we call morality and the created order. If A Hindu Republican is willing to do that, evangelicals might vote for him.
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