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Nikki Haley's Win: A Victory For Assimilation, Not Acceptance

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Many conservatives and Christians are touting Nikki Haley's convincing win to be the GOP candidate for governor in South Carolina as proof, along with Bobby Jindal's successful run for Louisiana governor in 2007, that both Republicans and the South are going post-racial, and that these Indian-American pols show how open the party really is.

"For the GOP, this is the best case scenario," said David Brody, White House correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, Pat Robertson's Virginia-based news station. "You have a Christian, Indian-American woman representing your party in a state in the Deep South. Folks, from a PR perspective it doesn't get any better than that. Haley's victory adds much needed diversity to the GOP rainbow."

But many Indian-Americans say the primary victory by Haley (she seems a likely winner in November, too) and Jindal's growing prominence (he has been hailed for his response to the Gulf oil disaster) have also exposed a serious downside for their community, which is largely composed of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains, the so-called "Dharma" religions that dominate in India and much of Asia.

That's because both candidates felt they had to explicitly and increasingly reject the religious elements of their native heritage -- Hinduism for Jindal, and Sikhism for Haley -- while playing up the Christian faith they both embraced as young adults. The issue appears likely to become a growing concern as Indian-Americans emerge on the national scene; there are currently a record six Indian-American candidates running for Congress, and at least two others running for statewide office.

"Many Hindus and Sikhs may question why Jindal's and Haley's disavowals need be so public and unflinching," Aseem Shukla, a doctor at the University of Minnesota medical school and co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, wrote at The Washington Post's "On Faith" blog. "Religious conversion should be a personal sojourn, but Jindal's and Haley's capitulation to an evangelical insistence on public religiosity and rejection of their ancestral faiths are galling to many."

To a degree, Barack Obama faced the same problem as a candidate, since he had to demonstrate his Christian bona fides for many on the right who were convinced (as many still are) that he was a Muslim, which he never was. He also had to overcome concerns from the far right about his race -- much as Jindal did with his ethnicity, and as Nikki Haley had to do, as was seen from the vicious "raghead" comments and other attacks on her in her South Carolina contest.

In the end, conservative voters in Louisiana and South Carolina showed that those concerns were not going to stop them from supporting Jindal or Haley. But one thing those candidates had going for them was their Christian faith, which was always front and center.

Jindal was born in the U.S. of Indian parents and raised a Hindu, and he became Catholic while in college. Haley was also born in the United States of Indian immigrant parents and was raised a Sikh, another major religion on the Indian subcontinent. She became a Methodist at 24, and continued to attend both Christian and Sikh services, though attacks questioning the legitimacy of her faith during the recent campaign led her to downplay her family connections to Sikhism.

That overt religious identification with voters has left some Indian-Americans ambivalent about her victory, and Jindal's legacy.

"The pigment of Obama's, Jindal's or Haley's skin does not seem to matter goes the popular narrative, but Christian faith is a foregone criterion for electability," Shukla declared. "A religious litmus test is clearly in play."

And it is a test, many feel, that candidates like Haley and Jindal are all too willing to ace.

For example, Haley has always used her middle name, Nikki -- her full name is Nimrata Nikki Randhawa -- and she married Michael Haley in 1996. As attacks on her heritage grew more intense during the campaign, she seemed to massage her public profile to make her appear more Christian and less Sikh. (Assimilating, whether religiously or culturally, is a perennial issue for all immigrants groups, and even within families: Haley's oldest brother -- she is one of four siblings -- is a retired military man and a Southern Baptist.)

Like many second-generation immigrants, Jindal also altered his name to fit in, asking his parents when he was 4 if they would call him "Bobby" -- like one of the boys in "The Brady Bunch" -- rather than his given name of Piyush. But not only has Jindal been outspoken in defending his adoptive Catholic faith over and above Hinduism and other religions, but in 2007, while in Congress, he was one of a handful of legislators to abstain from supporting a non-binding resolution recognizing the historical significance of the Hindu and Sikh festival of Diwali.

Haley and Jindal "were really ambitious about their politics, and they could not do it being Hindu or their old religion," Vidya Pradhan, editor of India Currents magazine, told The Associated Press. "I do think it was a political move," Pradhan said of their increasing identification with Christianity. "They felt that not being a Christian would hurt them."

Of course, that charge could be made against almost any politician today, as Republicans and a growing number of Democrats seek to demonstrate that they are good, churchgoing Christians -- and most important, even better Christians than their opponent.

Many Indian-American politicians counter that their faith is irrelevant to their electoral fortunes, and that Americans will not hold their beliefs against them, whatever they profess.

Yet that may be a public posture to some degree, showing a desire not to play the victim card.

Surveys show Americans grow more reluctant to vote for a candidate the more "exotic" or alien that candidate's religion appears, with Mormons and Muslims, for example, still facing major obstacles to public acceptance. (Atheists still fare the worst, by far.)

Hindus and Sikhs are such a small community, and until now have had such a low profile, that pollsters have not even asked about the public's comfort level with them. But the public knows so little about Indian religions that they are often lumped together with Islam, or glibly disparaged, as evangelist Franklin Graham recently did with Hinduism's deities. "No elephant with 100 arms can do anything for me. None of their 9,000 gods is going to lead me to salvation," Graham said on May's National Day of Prayer.

Moreover, the political calculus is likely more complicated for Indian-Americans who run as Republicans, and in regions like the South.

Except for Haley, the other seven Indian-American candidates for Congress this year are Democrats, and most are practicing Hindus or they do not highlight any particular faith orientation.

The candidates are: Surya Yalamanchili, a former Procter & Gamble brand manager, who will face incumbent Republican Jean Schmidt in Ohio's 2nd Congressional District; Ravi Sangisetty, who is running for the open seat in Louisiana's 3rd Congressional District; Reshma Saujani, who is waging a primary challenge to longtime incumbent Carolyn Maloney in New York's 14th CD, and running on an unlikely pro-Wall Street platform; Raj Goyle, who is running as a blue dog Democrat in the 4th Congressional District in Kansas; Manan Trivedi, a doctor and Iraq war veteran, who won a Democratic primary for Congress in Pennsylvania's 6th Congressional District; and Ami Bera, a physician who is challenging incumbent Rep. Dan Lungren in California's 3rd CD.

Also in California, Kamala Harris, the child of an Indian mother and black father, won the Democratic nomination for state attorney general and is favored to win the election this fall.

The irony of all this religious fretting and posturing is that Americans across the board have become so broad-minded about faith and so accepting of Hindu-like beliefs that Newsweek's Lisa Miller in 2007 wrote an essay titled "We Are All Hindus Now."

As Miller noted, two-thirds of Americans believe -- as do Hindus -- that many religions can offer eternal salvation, not just Christianity. And more Americans than ever are choosing to be cremated at death, which is the traditional Hindu practice. Moreover, one-quarter of Americans (24 percent in a 2009 Pew survey) believe in reincarnation.

Miller also mentioned yoga, which is a traditional spiritual practice of Hinduism and Sikhism -- but something that has become such a popular part of America's fitness and well-being culture that most any candidate could get away with declaring themselves an adherent.

Heck, even Sarah Palin made waves among yoga fans when she was photographed in Runner's World showing off the classic Vrksasana, or "tree pose." Except she was doing it incorrectly, which may cast doubts on how well she really knows her Hindu traditions.

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It is sad that the author of this article implies that the need to prove authentic Christian faith only applies to candidates who are Indians, immigrants, or non-whites. Like it or not, American voters have always been very skeptical of white,native-born candidates who are not visibly Protestant, but they have also been willing to overlook this in the end. Thomas Jefferson faced vicious personal attacks over his faith and theology when running for President - Jefferson referred to himself as a Christian, but denied the divinity of Christ, the trinity, and the idea that the Bible was God's word. Teddy Roosevelt fought off attacks on his hand-picked successor, Taft, who as a Unitarian was not seen as a 'real' Christian, and JFK felt compelled to tell voters that although he was a Catholic, he wasn't a very good one. This had absolutely nothing to do with race or immigration, so if Obama, Haley, and Jindal feel the need to shore up their 'Christian' credentials, it means that they are in the same club as Jefferson, Taft & Kennedy. I just don't see a racial or immigrant angle here.

November 10 2010 at 2:37 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"Religious conversion should be a personal sojourn, but Jindal's and Haley's capitulation to an evangelical insistence on public religiosity and rejection of their ancestral faiths are galling to many."

Who decided that religious conversion should be a personal sojourn? Does such a statement combined with "capitulation to an evangelical insistence on public religiousity" look a little hypocritical to anyone else? Basically Dr Shukla is saying that only his way is correct-a way that supposedly says all ways are valid....just not the ones he disagrees with. Pffft! Those who believe religious belief/expression should be private (or none existant)are expressing a religious belief....just as those who believe religious expression/believe should be public are expressing a religious belief.

Pot and kettles.

July 07 2010 at 1:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

A lot of this discussion is legitimate. But I have an additional 'take' on this.
I live in Lexington, South Carolina, and have met and listened to Nikki during the last 6 weeks.

Wouldn't it be easier to accept that Nikki Haley grew up and was influenced positively by Christians living their lives? She could have been one more person who listened to Billy Graham or the PTL program on TV, or met practicing Christians who explained who Christ is at Clemson university where she graduated.

Contrary to the popular media 90% of Christians are not hypocrites. They practice their faith in simple ways. Many are "real," kind, and considerate.

It is very cynical to assume that the only reason Nikki or Jindal "converted" to Christianity was 'to get ahead.' In America we can practice any religion.

Yesterday my motorcycle had a flat and two strangers seeing my predicament stopped what they were doing and plugged the leak without asking anything in return. The Indian owner of the gas station at 3 Fountains in Lexington walked over and said to me very seriously: the people in this area, they are very good and kind and then proceded to give me another specific example.

June 27 2010 at 4:56 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Thank you for this insightful article. As an American Jew born in the shadow of the Holocaust, I share the author's concerns but I believe that the younger generation is more open to people of any (or no) religious faith, race and sexual orientation. The Times They Are A Changing. And not a moment too soon!

June 26 2010 at 2:20 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Aloha Mr. Gibson,

Kudos for taking on this sensitive subject! For the most, I concur with your assessment of "assimilation and not acceptance", however, there is a deeper aspect of the assimilation process for us. As a grand- mother, an (Asian) American, I see much brighter future for my grandchildren. Our families are here because we believed in the "American ways" and we choose what value to take or leave for ourselves and our children, be it the "christian ways, or our old heritage traditions". Mahalo.

June 26 2010 at 12:17 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

This quote in the article from The Washington Post's "On Faith" blog. "Religious conversion should be a personal sojourn, but Jindal's and Haley's capitulation to an evangelical insistence on public religiosity and rejection of their ancestral faiths are galling to many."

That may be so, but it does not gall as many or to the extent that the Gay agenda does. Why, if the Post believes the above, can't they also blog that sex is also a personal sojourn and does not need to be in our face.

June 26 2010 at 9:08 AM Report abuse +11 rate up rate down Reply

Instead of giving the southern people credit for not discriminating against Jindahl and Haley based on their race this article suggests that the people would have discriminated against the two candidates based on their religion. The majority of the southern people would vote against any candidate who adheres to any religion that is anti-christian but all others would likely be accepted. Obama had a problem because as the article points out many people believed that he is a muslim. Those people also believe that muslims are anti-christian.

June 26 2010 at 2:20 AM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply

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