(RNS) — Since he declared his candidacy for president, Vivek Ramaswamy has been attacked by Christian leaders and fellow Republicans for his religion. To many, even in his own party, Ramaswamy is considered unfit for the office of president of the United States because he is Hindu.
Anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson said earlier this month on the conservative Christian talk show “Flash Point” that Ramaswamy “is gaining traction now as the presidential nominee” because he “says the right things.” But, Johnson cautioned the audience, “he is the wrong choice because he is Hindu. And those who are Hindu believe in many gods.”
In July, The New York Times quoted a Republican evangelical Christian voter in Tennessee, Bristol Smith, who said: “I looked up his religion and saw he’s Hindu. … I was going to vote for him until that came up.” At that point, Smith said, “I got back on President Trump’s train.”
Smith, who wants to “put (America) back under God,” prefers a twice-impeached, thrice-indicted serial philanderer to a religious minority.
The Republican base likes candidates to talk about God, and so Ramaswamy does. Rather than shy away from his Hinduism, or assert a conversion to Christianity like his primary rival Nikki Haley, Ramaswamy, who grew up attending a Hindu temple in Ohio, has been engaging vigorously in “God talk” and putting his Hindu faith front and center. Why shouldn’t he? It is part of who he is. But the response has revealed what kind of God talk the Republican Party is ready to hear: the Christian kind.
Hinduism is an American religion. But as an Indian American and Hindu, Ramaswamy is facing what many of us have faced in various settings: unwarranted, hateful comments about our religion. I grew up being teased that my gods looked “funny” and “crazy.” I was told my religion was “idol-worship.”
Thanks to the normative power of Christianity in American culture, and the European cultures that preceded it, figures with golden halos and chubby white babies with wings (cherubim) are regarded as ordinary and acceptable images of the divine. The work of artists from Michelangelo to Sallman have taught us that picturing God and Jesus as white-skinned, bearded and sometimes levitating in the sky reflects some sort of truth.
But the elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesh or images that express God’s divinity by portraying him or her as brightly colored or with numerous arms or heads is somehow bizarre and charlatanical. Kneeling in prayer before a crucifix or statue of the Virgin Mary marks one as pious, while kneeling in prayer before an image of Laxmi or Vishnu prompts references to Satan.
Likewise, most holy books and faith traditions include stories that can be described as supernatural. But consider the way that many religions’ stories are actually talked about: Mary’s virginity and Jesus’ resurrection carry the aura of truth, while the important beliefs of Hinduism — which are no more fantastical, scientifically speaking — are devalued as “myths” and “folkways.”
Better education about religions would help reduce such bias. Christians can understand that Hindus do not pray to a statue any more than Christians pray to the Crucifix. Or that lighting diyas or burning incense at the temple are not evil, while lighting candles and using the thurible in a Christian church are good. All are representations and traditions that we use to focus ourselves on the divine.
Ramaswamy is not the first racial and religious minority candidate to have his patriotism and fitness for office questioned because he is not Christian or not white. Christianity is a vital ingredient of the American idea of patriotism, and Christian values, language and belief are treated as the national standard. Not so long ago this applied only to Protestants. Catholics were suspected of having divided loyalties between the U.S. and the Vatican — most famously, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. Jews are still accused of having allegiance to Israel.
Hindus’ allegiance, according to evangelicals such as Johnson, is to Satan. “Do not be a victim of Satan’s confusion right now,” she told the Flash Point audience. Voters should reject Ramaswamy, she added, because “God hates those who are willing to put up idols over him.”
Johnson and Smith surely believe themselves to be patriots and would probably say they love the U.S. Constitution. If so, they’ve put their hypocrisy on display: The one specific reference to religion in the Constitution itself is that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
If you hold it against political candidates that they are not Christian, you’re no patriot.
Christian dominance is maintained through the power of cultural norms and majoritarian phenomena. As a result, the advantages that Christians have, also known as Christian privilege, are often invisible. To understand Christian nationalism and the weaponizing of “Christianity” in support of conservative and anti-democratic movements in the United States, we need to open our eyes to the deep institutional and cultural privileges enjoyed by Christianity alone among American religions.
White Christian nationalism, and its effects on the body politic, is about more than just evangelicals. Consider a cake. The frosting on the cake is Christian nationalism: visible, vivid and messy. But the cake itself, the foundation on which the frosting sits, is Christian privilege and Christian normativity: all the ways that Christianity is embedded in our legal and social infrastructure.
There are lots of reasons to oppose Ramaswamy’s candidacy, from his refusal to say whether he would have followed the Constitution on Jan. 6 and his denial of the 9/11 Commission report to his belief that the undeniable science of man-made climate change is merely a “climate cult” of “religious mythology” and his pledge to pardon Donald Trump.
But calling Ramaswamy unworthy of office because he is a Hindu betrays the promise of this nation and its Constitution. To their credit, U.S. Reps. Ro Khanna and Raja Krishnamoorthi, both of whom are Hindu (and Democrats), have stood up against the attacks on Ramaswamy. But where are the other politicians — the Christians or Jews, whether Democratic or Republican — who should be standing up for the constitutional principle that how one prays does not make him fit or unfit for office?