07.15.10

The Jesus Litmus Test

In today’s Republican Party, racial barriers may be falling, but religious barriers are alive and well. Just ask Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley. Peter Beinart on the GOP’s phony diversity.

The GOP has a new rallying cry: Diversity! After years of insisting that one shouldn’t judge candidates by their race, ethnicity and gender, Republicans are crowing that they have candidates of various races, ethnicities and genders. In addition to Bobby Jindal, the Indian-American governor of Louisiana, the GOP has selected Nikki Haley, another South Asian, as its gubernatorial candidate in South Carolina. In Florida, Cuban-American Republican Marco Rubio is running for the senate. And in California, the GOP’s nominees for governor and Senate are both women. Now Republicans can have it both ways: They can congratulate themselves for their race and gender diversity while simultaneously congratulating themselves for not caring about race and gender diversity. As the conservative columnist Noemie Emery recently declared, “Diversity has struck the Republican Party, but to the parties it means different things. Democrats see it as an end in itself…Republicans see it as the means to an end, i.e., more good candidates…Democrats organize themselves by identity interests; Republicans by ideology.”

The GOP’s basic problem is that many Republicans equate Christianity, or at least Judeo-Christianity, with Americanism.

Mark McKinnon: Palin’s Running for President On one level, Emery’s statement is absurd, since if Democrats really saw diversity as “an end in itself,” which matters more than ideology, they’d be supporting the Republicans’ female, minority candidates over their own white male ones. But in a broader sense, Emery is right: when selecting candidates, today’s Republicans do prioritize “ideology” over identity. There’s just one catch: for many Republicans, ideology doesn’t just mean lower taxation and higher military spending. It also means Christianity (or at least Judeo-Christianity). In the United States today, and in particular in the GOP, racial barriers may be falling, but religious barriers are alive and well.

Jindal was raised Hindu and converted to Catholicism; Haley is a Sikh who became evangelical. There’s no reason to doubt the sincerity of their conversions. But both also seem aware that maintaining the non-Western religious traditions of their birth would have imperiled their political careers. In 2007, when Congress overwhelmingly passed a resolution recognizing the Hindu and Sikh festival of Diwali, Jindal abstained. Before running for governor, Haley noted that her family attended a Sikh Temple as well as a Methodist Church, but today she studiously avoids any reference to being born Sikh and as the campaign has progressed, her website has been updated to stress in increasingly emphatic terms her devotion to Jesus Christ. That’s hardly surprising given that the co-chairman of one of her Republican gubernatorial rivals circulated an email claiming that Haley “ can’t seem to make up her mind about her faith.”

Explaining a faith that is not strictly monotheistic would be challenging in any political environment, but the barriers to religious diversity are clearly highest in the GOP. The South Carolina Republican Platform, for instance, declares, “We recognize the Judeo-Christian ethic embraced by our founding fathers and call upon our state and nation to return again to the values that made America and the American people great.” It’s less likely that Haley would have had to hide her Sikh heritage had she been running in, say, a Democratic primary in California, as opposed to a Republican primary in a state whose GOP-dominated legislature recently tried to put a Christian message on license plates.

Republicans might respond that if they favor Christians, Democrats discriminate against them. But it’s a bogus charge. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is a devout Mormon; party chairman Tim Kaine is a devout Catholic; some of the party’s leading African-American politicians are pastors. It’s certainly true that if you take the Southern Baptist Convention’s view on abortion and gay rights, you’re less likely to win a Democratic primary in a blue state. But that’s about the political interpretation of religious belief. If you’re pro-choice and pro-gay rights, simply being an evangelical Christian won’t cause you any problems in the Democratic Party. For Nikki Haley in the South Carolina GOP, by contrast, being an anti-abortion, anti-gay Sikh wouldn’t have been enough. Her religion itself was a problem.

That’s not to suggest that the GOP has made no strides toward religious tolerance. Conservative Christians are clearly more willing to vote for Jews than they were in 1978, when a Lee Atwater associate sandbagged a Jewish South Carolina Democrat with anti-Semitic push polls. But the flip side of the right’s “Judeo-Christian” big tent is an increased post-9/11 hostility to Muslims. It’s virtually impossible to imagine a practicing Muslim winning a Republican primary for the House or Senate, as Democrat Keith Ellison did recently in Minnesota. In fact, when Ellison took his oath of office on the Koran, right-wing talk show hosts worked themselves into a frenzy. Even Mitt Romney’s Mormonism constitutes a major problem in the more socially conservative precincts of the GOP. According to a 2006 Rasmussen poll, more than half of evangelical Christians said they would not even consider voting for a Mormon.

The GOP’s basic problem is that many Republicans equate Christianity, or at least Judeo-Christianity, with Americanism. They do not believe it’s possible to truly uphold American ideals unless you identify with the religious traditions that supposedly underlie those ideals. In a country with a growing Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Mormon, and atheist population, that’s a significant source of political bigotry. Is it good that the South Carolina GOP has embraced a South Asian woman? Of course. When that woman can practice whatever religion she wants, without fear that it will wreck her political career, then Republicans will truly deserve to crow.

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to the Democratic Party Chairman as Tom Kaine and Tim Caine. His name is Tim Kaine.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.