Nikki Haley says she’s Christian, but it’s complicated

Dogged by questions about her faith, what is she trying to prove?

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley greets supporters after her speech Feb. 15, 2023, in Charleston, South Carolina. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)

(RNS) — In the opening seconds of Nikki Haley’s video launching her 2024 presidential bid this week, she described her upbringing in the South: “I was the proud daughter of Indian immigrants. Not Black, not white, but different.” The words are accompanied by a childhood photograph of Haley, with her mother and turban-wearing father smiling behind her.

While we share virtually no political views today and there is no circumstance where I would support her candidacy, Haley could have been describing me in that video. She and I are the same age, both daughters of Indian immigrants, raised in the South and schooled at segregation academies — independent schools founded after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, so white students could avoid public school integration.

Growing up Indian American in the 20th-century South was dissonant not only racially but even more so in terms of religion. Haley grew up Sikh, and I grew up Hindu, in a place where both the landscape and the culture were dominated by evangelical Christian megachurches.

Particularly for our generation of 1.5- and second-generation South Asian Americans who identify as Sikh, Hindu, Muslim or Jain, religious identity is a source of struggle, strife and isolation. First, Christianity’s domination of U.S. culture meant that all the ways we had to start making sense of the world were steeped in faith language not our own. One of the young women I talked to for my first book said she “just wish[ed] that Hinduism had a Ten Commandments.”

Second, many Indian Americans have expressed that because they don’t understand the language of the prayers — like Sanskrit for Hindus like me, or the many languages in the Sikh sacred text, the Guru Granth Sahib, for Haley — they weren’t really sure what they were doing or saying when performing religious rituals. Research shows us that language loss is a factor that contributes to religious minorities’ sense of disconnection from their home faith. In Haley’s own words, she could “feel God in the room, but I couldn’t understand it because I didn’t know the language.”

Not understanding the words used in prayers and teaching, they have difficulty grasping the rituals, their theological meaning and the underlying religious principles. Some of the young people I interviewed found comfort going to churches, or with Christian prayer, because they understood what was going on.

Religion, and her conversion to Christianity, has made Haley suspect in the eyes of both Christians and non-Christians. The first time she ran for the South Carolina Legislature, she identified both with her parents’ Sikh religion and with the Methodist faith of her husband. As she grew in political stature, however, her campaign faced more and more questions that sounded something like this: “OK, she’s talking about God, but which God?”

Republican South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley delivers remarks at the Federalist Society 2016 National Lawyers Convention in Washington, on November 18, 2016. Photo couretsy of Reuters/Gary Cameron

Republican South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley delivers remarks at the Federalist Society 2016 National Lawyers Convention in Washington, on November 18, 2016. Photo by Gary Cameron/Reuters

The language on her campaign website was revised, with a reference to “almighty God” changed to make specific reference to Jesus Christ. At one point, she added a section to her website titled “Is Nikki a Christian?” The answer, of course, was yes. For many South Carolina voters who needed reassurance that their candidate would represent them, that meant praying to and believing in a Christian God.

Once she was in the Legislature, her conservative colleagues’ skepticism could be cruel. According to a 2021 Politico Magazine profile, “Some of her Republican colleagues would try to provoke her with jokes about alien gods; others would force uncomfortable discussions about religion.” Jake Knotts, a veteran GOP lawmaker, said: “Everybody knew she wasn’t a real Christian. Everyone knew she converted for political purposes. Her whole career has been stair-climbing, and becoming a Methodist was just one of those stairs.”

Haley has also faced questions and criticism about her conversion to Christianity from South Asian Americans and other racial minority groups. She is seen by some as a racial and religious “sell-out.”

In a political culture where “flip-flopping” is a derisive term, religious conversion can look like the ultimate flip-flop: a disloyalty not just to a political position or party but to God.

These criticisms ignore the complexity of being a second-generation Indian American, or of being a racial and religious minority in the United States.

By her own account, Haley continues to visit her gurdwara with family from time to time, and she has resisted the opportunity to criticize her parents’ faith when interviewed about her own. She and her husband gave their children Punjabi first names.

Haley is not the first person to fall in love with someone of another faith and convert. There are couples across the United States and the world who have made that decision, whether so they could marry in a particular church, commit to raising their children in a particular faith or simply please pious relatives.

Haley married a white Christian man and became a Methodist. I married a white Christian man and remained a Hindu. So what?

We can never know what’s in someone’s heart. So I’m not interested in saying her conversion was sincere or insincere. Haley’s life shows us what religion is for many people in the U.S.: beautiful, rich, textured — and complicated.

The Rev. John Hagee offers a prayer at the start of Nikki Haley's 2024 presidential announcement, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in Charleston, South Carolina. Video screen grab

The Rev. John Hagee offers a prayer at Nikki Haley’s 2024 presidential announcement, Feb. 15, 2023, in Charleston, South Carolina. Video screen grab

However, while we can’t judge what is in people’s hearts, we must take note of the choices they make. Haley’s decision to invite televangelist John Hagee — who has demonized Islam and described Adolf Hitler alternately as an antisemitic Catholic and a “genocidal half-breed Jew” — to deliver the invocation at her campaign launch is worrisome.

It shows that, if elected, she will assert her Christianity through policy. Whether that’s to prove her Christian bona fides or because she genuinely believes that the law should be used to enforce the dominant religion’s purported code of conduct is of no moment to those who will suffer as a result.

However, I suspect we will never have to grapple with that issue. In today’s Republican Party of absolutes and enemies, the richness of Haley’s religious background is anathema. The GOP’s version of Americanness is as religiously and racially exclusive as it’s ever been. What we might see as beautiful, they see as disgusting. It will be interesting to watch how different Christian segments of the Republican Party react to Haley as a presidential candidate.

The rest of us can extend her some grace when it comes to her family life, while still criticizing her embrace of Christian nationalism on the campaign trail. Nikki Haley’s political and religious journey represents some of the ways we live religion and understand and relate to one another as people of faith in America. And that’s a good thing.

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