Bristol Smith, a manager at McDonald’s in Maryville, Tenn., 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 “stands against the awakening” and his plan to send the military to the southern border to fight 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 at his parents’ house.
“I looked up his religion and saw he was a Hindu,” he recalled. “I’ll vote for him until that comes out.” What the country needs is to be “put back under God,” as Mr. Smith sees it, and he doesn’t want to risk someone who isn’t a Christian.
At the time, he said, “I’m back on the President Trump train.”
Mr. Ramaswamy, 37, was raised by Indian immigrants and is a practicing Hindu. This presents a dilemma for some of the conservative Christian voters, who make up a significant part of the Republican primary electorate and are used to evaluating candidates not only on their policy proposals but also on their biographies and personal beliefs, including religious faith.
For many conservative voters, a candidate’s faith is a signifier of their values, lifestyle, loyalties and priorities as a leader. It’s the Sunday morning version of the classic question about which candidate you’d most enjoy drinking beer with: Who would be a good fit at your church?
“It’s another hurdle that people have to go through to get to him,” Bob Vander Plaats, an influential evangelical leader in Iowa, said of Mr. Ramaswamy.
Mr. Vander Plaats recently had Mr. Ramaswamy’s family for Sunday dinner at his house, where the meal opened with a prayer and the reading of a passage from the Bible. He came away impressed with Mr Ramaswamy and said his message aligned with the priorities of many evangelical voters. He mentioned Mr. Ramaswamy’s list of 10 core “truths,” the first of which is: “God is real.” (The second: “There are two genders.”)
“I think he really connects with the audiences in Iowa,” said Mr. Vander Plaats, who has not endorsed a candidate. “He welcomes the deeper questions.” Mr. Ramaswamy polls less than 5 percent in most recent national polls.
Mr Ramaswamy’s approach was to face the issue head on and argue that he has more in common with observant Christians than they might think.
“I am not a Christian. I was not brought up in a Christian home,” he told Mr. Vander Plaats in June before a small audience at the headquarters of his organization, the Family Leader. “But we share the same Christian values that this nation was founded on.”
In an interview at the end of June, after leaving a meeting with several dozen priests in New Hampshire, Mr. Ramaswamy said that his faith had taught him that Jesus was “the 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 one teacher or god. )
Although he is not a Christian, Mr. Ramaswamy pointed out, he speaks openly about why belief in God is important and why rising secularism in America is bad for the country, and about values such as marital fidelity, duty, religious freedom and sacrifice.
“I don’t have a quick pitch to say, ‘No, no, that doesn’t matter,'” he said of the theological differences between Hinduism and Christianity. “It’s just that I understand exactly why that would matter to you.”
At campaign stops, Mr. Ramaswamy refers to Bible stories, including the crucifixion of Jesus, and quotes Thomas Aquinas. He often mentions his experience attending a “Christian school” in Cincinnati (St. Xavier High School, a Catholic school). And he contrasts “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 New Hampshire.
Mr. Ramaswamy’s campaign circulated clips of an Iowa pastor comparing him to the biblical figure of King David, and of his lengthy response to a New Hampshire man who asked 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 she finished her prayer.
If Mr. Ramaswamy has a chance with evangelical primary voters in the crowded Republican field, it will be thanks in part to forces beyond his campaign. Many conservative voters, for whom shared faith may once have been a litmus test, now say they are looking not for a “high priest” but someone who shares their political and cultural goals, and who will fight on their behalf.
“Theology is important, but the culture has changed. America has changed,” said David Brody, the Christian Broadcasting Network’s chief political analyst, who interviewed Mr. Ramaswamy. The biggest goal now, Mr. Brody said, is to combat “cultural Marxism” and correct the course of “a country gone wrong.”
He compared evangelical priorities in next year’s Iowa caucuses to those in 2008 and 2012, when Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum won on the strength of their conservative Christian bona fides.
“The lazy story that he’s Hindu so he can’t appeal to evangelicals, I don’t buy it at all,” Mr Brody said.
In recent years, theological lines have blurred as political divisions have hardened. Few churches are divided these days over old debates such as the exact timing of the end times or the role of free will in salvation. About half of American Protestants now say they prefer to attend church with people who share their political views, according to a Lifeway Research poll.
Mr. Ramaswamy’s emphasis on his belief in one God has a long history for Hindus in the United States, especially those who speak to white Christian audiences, said Michael Altman, a professor of religious studies at the University of Alabama.
Swami Vivekananda, who represented Hinduism at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893, tried to present his faith as monotheistic, in contrast to the stereotypes of its followers as “pagan” polytheists. Although the faith has many deities, they are generally subordinated to one ultimate “reality”. Many Hindus and scholars say that its theology is too complex to be described as either completely monotheistic or completely polytheistic.
“The polytheistic hurdle is the first thing that needs to be addressed” for many American Christian audiences, Mr. Altman said. He sees Mr. Ramaswamy’s argument 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 blazed a new trail 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 rugged, thrice-married casino magnate not because he was one of them but because they believed he would fight in the public square on their behalf.
Most Indians, including Hindus, are democrats. But some conservatives see an opening with a population that prioritizes family life, marriage and education. As president, Mr Trump hosted Diwali celebrations at the White House, and in April the Republican National Committee announced a new Republican Hindu and Indian American Coalition. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a popular figure among a growing cohort of right-wing Indian Americans, drawing a crowd of 50,000 when he appeared with Mr Trump in Houston in 2019. Mr Ramaswamy spoke last year at a party organized by the right-wing American group HinduPACT, which matches the style of Mr. Modi of nationalism.
Nikki Haley, another Native American contender in the 2024 primary, similarly emphasized her background as the daughter of immigrants. But although Ms. Haley was raised 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 Hindu but described himself as an “evangelical Catholic.”
Mr. Ramaswamy attends the same temple in Dayton, Ohio that he did as a child and that his parents still do.
One of the temple’s priests performed his wedding in New York in 2015. He and his wife and their two young sons attend the temple on holidays and to mark special occasions, including the younger son’s first birthday in early July, his wife , Dr. Apoorva. Ramaswamy, said.
Dr. Ramaswamy, who has publicly discussed the family’s faith on the campaign trail, said there are 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 true respect and fear and love of God – that is much more unifying than the name of the God that people pray to,” D- Mr. Ramaswamy. said
The question for her husband’s campaign is whether enough Christian voters will agree.
Ken Bosse, the pastor of New Life Church in Raymond, NH, described himself as an “extreme follower of Jesus Christ” who would prefer to have a Christian in the White House, all things considered. But he would be open to the right candidate who is not a Christian, noting that “we had some professing Christians in that position who did not follow biblical principles.”
Mr. Bosse invited Mr. Ramaswamy to give a short talk in his church on a Sunday morning in April. He liked the candidate’s emphasis on reclaiming a positive American identity, he said, and on his story as a self-made millionaire who is the child of immigrants.
For now, however, Mr. Bosse is leaning toward supporting Mr. Trump.