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Vivek Ramaswamy — the youngest declared 2024 Republican presidential candidate — stands apart from his rivals in another big way: his religious identity. The biotech entrepreneur is the only Hindu in the pack.

He and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley are both Indian American candidates. But Haley, raised as a Sikh, now describes herself as a Christian.

Bobby Jindal — an Indian American who sought the presidency in 2014 — converted to Catholicism from Hinduism in high school. Being a Christian, it seems, has been the price of admission into the upper ranks of the Republican Party — at least in the Deep South.

But Ramaswamy is forging his own path. Rather than giving up his Hindu faith or siding with the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, he’s actively courting the evangelical Christian vote as someone who remains a Hindu.

Ramaswamy on America’s Civic Religion

What’s struck me over the past few months is Ramaswamy’s increased use of religious language. It turns out, others have noticed too.

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This weekend, the New York Times published a story on Ramswamy’s courtship of Christian voters. Surprisingly, he’s actually resonating with some evangelicals — including the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody.

“Theology matters, but the culture has changed. America has changed…The lazy narrative that he’s Hindu so he can’t appeal to evangelicals, I don’t buy it at all.”

David Brody, Christian Broadcasting Network

In a video of a recent campaign event posted on Twitter, Ramaswamy makes his pitch on a Sunday to Christian audience members.

In it, Ramaswamy affirms that America has a religious foundation. He presents today’s political divide as one between two polar opposite meta-religions. On the one side, there are believers in a One True God. Americans who believe in time-tested religious traditions. And on the other are those who he says follow “cult-like religions.” Ramaswamy lists them as “wokeism, climateism, transgenderism, gender ideology, and Covidism.”

What Ramaswamy does here is in some ways novel. He expands the idea of America as a Judeo-Christian country to one that includes Hindus like him and his family. Ramaswamy doesn’t mention Buddhists or Muslims. So it’s unclear how big he’s willing to make the tent.

But there’s a precedent for what he’s trying to do. Many of America’s founders described the United States as a Christian country. In the 1950s, Jews were incorporated into the fold, in part to distinguish the U.S. from the atheist communists in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

In 2000, then-presidential candidate George W. Bush expanded the tent even further to include Muslims. But the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terrorism did away with the term “Judeo-Christian-Islamic.”

Today, Ramaswamy is trying to expand America’s civic religious fold in another war: the battle against progressive ideologies. Like other followers of non-Protestant religions in the U.S., Ramaswamy does so by assimilating his own Hindu religious tradition into America’s dominant Protestant culture.

For example, Ramaswamy asserts: “We are all equal in the eyes of each other because are equal in the eyes of God.”

Does Ramaswamy Have a Modi Problem?

Ramaswamy, once stuck at one to two percent in the polls, may be breaking out — or at least moving further away from zero. The latest Morning Consult poll has him at eight percent in a survey of potential Republican primary voters.

But evangelicals remain gatekeepers in today’s Republican Party. And there’s risk that Ramaswamy’s honeymoon with them might be short-lived.

The reason? His praise for India’s Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi.

To be clear, Ramaswamy isn’t running on the basis of his ethnic or religious identity. And he shouldn’t be forced to take positions on India’s internal issues because of his background. But Ramaswamy has, on his own accord, expressed his views on Indian politics. Evangelicals might find these views troubling.

Last month, Ramaswamy attended Modi’s address to a joint session of Congress and said that he “respect[s] Modi for reviving national pride in India” — describing the Hindu nationalist’s rhetoric as “healthy.”

And in an interview this week, he hailed Modi as “an excellent prime minister for India.” Ramaswamy claimed that Modi “unapologetically embraced free market capitalism” — an absurd claim for anyone who actually follows the Indian economy. (Modi’s economic policy is marked by the growth of the Indian welfare state. Benefits and subsidies win elections.)

Ramaswamy also praised Modi as “someone who doesn’t apologize for Indian national identity.” This too is a claim that is at odds with reality. Modi’s predecessors came from the party that led the Indian independence movement.

Indeed, what makes Modi different from them is that he’s a Hindu nationalist. He and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) believe that secular India should become a Hindu rashtra or Hindu nation-state. That’s a core principle of Modi’s Hindutva ideology.

And in that Hindu rashtra, India’s 200 million Christians and Muslims would be rendered second-class citizens.

Ramaswamy’s Contradictions

Ramaswamy is backing someone who not only rejects the ideas of individual liberty and religious freedom that are at the heart of the American experiment — values that Ramaswamy professes — but Modi and his BJP are also persecuting the very religious community that the Republican hopeful is trying to court here in the United States.

Since Modi became prime minister in 2014, Christians and Muslims have been targeted with unending campaigns of hate and violence. Both communities have been painted as the enemy. Modi’s supporters ridicule Indian Christians as “rice bag converts” — suggesting that they embraced the Christian faith for mere food handouts. They say this despite the fact that India’s oldest Christian communities date back to the 1st century AD.

Modi’s BJP has implemented religious conversion bans in many states, denying people the right to choose their own faith. It’s pushing for a nationwide ban.

Violence against Christians has also soared. In December, Christians in around 100 villages in eastern India were attacked by Hindu extremist mobs, who ransacked churches and forced Christians to flee their homes.

In 2020, the Modi government arrested the 83-year-old Jesuit priest Stan Swamy on terrorism charges. His pleas for bail were denied despite being afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. He died the next year in prison due to COVID. A posthumous independent investigation found he was framed.

Ramaswamy’s views on India contrast with his tough approach toward China.

On China, Ramaswamy doesn’t pull punches. He calls the Chinese Communist Party “a dictatorship” and its chairman Xi Jinping is “a dictator.” And he’s right.

But as Ramaswamy rightly blasts Xi, he speaks glowingly of Modi who also seeks to impose the hegemony of his ideology over the Christian faith.

Evangelical voters may soon notice these contradictions.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.

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