“Faith, patriotism, belief in God, nation… those have disappeared. That leaves a moral vacuum in its wake.” This kind of rhetoric has long been a fixture of Republican politics, so it's no surprise that this was a sentiment expressed by a 2024 GOP presidential candidate.
What is surprising, however, is that the candidate in question, Vivek Ramaswamy, is a millennial Hindu American candidate whose parents, like my own, immigrated to this country.
While those working at the intersection of religion and politics have been long aware of the rising threat of Christian nationalism, it was not until the Jan. 6 insurrection that this term burst into mainstream political discourse. And just as more and more people have begun to consider the dangers of this pernicious ideology, members of the GOP are seemingly being compelled to full-heartedly embrace the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and, therefore, its laws must be informed by biblical teachings.
Ramaswamy is a shining example of how much white Christian nationalism has become a primary feature of Republican politics.
On his campaign stops, he touts his “ten commandments,” which include hits such as “God is real,” “There are two genders,” and “The nuclear family is the greatest form of governance known to mankind.” (It is important to note that Hinduism has a wide range of beliefs about God, Hindu text is inclusive of LGBTQ+ individuals, and many Indian Hindus live in multigenerational, not nuclear, households).
Ramaswamy is open about his Hindu faith, but he’s been careful to emphasize that he still shares many of the same values as Christians and that the United States was built around Judeo-Christian values.
As a fellow Hindu and a person working in the interfaith space, I agree that there are plenty of shared values between Hindus and Christians.
The notion of treating others the way you want to be treated, for instance, is similar to the Hindu idea that God is everywhere and everything, and we must conduct ourselves as such. And in the same way that many LGBTQ+-affirming Christians cite theology as a reason to champion equity, my Hindu values motivate me to fight for equal protection for people of all sexualities and genders.
But Ramaswamy is using both his own faith and the faith of millions of others as a license to push discriminatory policies and rhetoric—and not to great avail. Hardline adherents of Christian nationalism, from right-wing activists like Abby Johnson to Trump-aligned pastors, are tearing down Ramaswamy because of his Hindu faith. Even the flailing Ron DeSantis campaign—which is no stranger to exploiting faith for political gain—has been flirting with attacks on Ramaswamy’s religion and Indian heritage.
Ramaswamy and other non-Christian GOP candidates are in a bind.
With the majority of Republicans voicing support for Christian nationalism—believing that the country should be a strictly Christian nation—candidates in 2024 and beyond are going to need to court these voters somehow. A diversifying Republican field will also mean more and more non-Christian candidates will be forced to somehow walk this line.
At the same time, the very ethos of Christian nationalism precludes non-Christian candidates (and frankly, even Christian candidates who fail to adhere to a specific brand of Christianity) from holding significant political power. Ramaswamy and candidates like him, such as Nikki Haley (who is Methodist but descends from a Sikh family), are going to continue to face attacks accusing them of not being American enough, and not being Christian enough.
So, do you have to be Christian to advance the goals of Christian nationalism? As Ramaswamy has shown us, not at all. But as much as he showboats for religious extremists, they will never wholeheartedly embrace him.
America has never been perfect, but it was founded on the idea of religious pluralism, and that all people—not just Christians—should have the freedom to live out their values free from fear or discrimination.
While this vision has long been aspirational rather than reality, Christian nationalists and their allies are working to erase this truth and promote the idea that America is a Christian country. Ironically, with help from the very people they’re looking to marginalize.