If you've been following election news at all recently, you might be familiar with Vivek Ramaswamy, a businessman and child of Indian immigrants whom some consider a contender for the presidency.
And while pundits, evangelical leaders, and voters debate his policy positions, they're also considering something else: his Hindu faith.
Would America Elect a Hindu?
Ramaswamy’s Hindu faith is a sticking point for some evangelicals, who say they’d never vote for a non-Christian to enter the White House – no matter how much they agree with his positions.
A 2020 poll conducted by Pew Research Center shows that more than three-quarters of white evangelical Protestants believe it is important that the president share their faith in particular.
And although Ramaswamy often speaks about his admiration for the “Judeo-Christian values” he believes this nation was founded on, it may not be enough for many. Perhaps that’s why he tries to downplay the importance of his own faith, even while making overtures to evangelical Christianity.
“I share that same value-set in common,” he says of his Hindu faith in comparison to Christianity. But “I’m not running for pastor-in-chief.”
Here's Ramaswamy speaking to a crowd about faith issues on the campaign trail:
"Strange Gods in the White House"
Not everyone is sold, however. Some religious leaders are even speaking out against the idea of electing a Hindu.
In a viral sermon that’s been viewed more than one million times, pastor Hank Kunneman lambasted Ramaswamy’s faith:
Kunneman asked how he can be trusted to uphold Judeo-Christian principles in office if he’s not swearing on the Bible and “putting all of his strange gods up in the White House?”
“What are we doing even entertaining the fact?” Kunneman pondered.
Kunneman’s not the only evangelical Christian to criticize Ramaswamy’s Hindu faith, either.
Commentator Ann Coulter has also made headlines recently with comments about the Hindu faith that many found callous. “What’s with the worshiping of the cows?” she wondered on a recent podcast appearance. "Did you know they have a rat temple, where they worship rats?"
Callousness aside, the comments underscore the serious challenge that anyone of the Hindu faith will need to overcome to reach some Americans: "otherness" is not a label easily shed.
What Do Hindus Believe?
Although there are more than 1.2 billion Hindus around the world, the "otherness" factor here is impactful. Millions of Americans are unfamiliar with the faith, and surveys have shown many cannot answer basic questions about it.
Hinduism is one of the world's oldest faiths, with a rich tapestry of beliefs, practices, and traditions that have evolved over thousands of years. So, how are animals like cows and rats incorporated in Hindu beliefs?
Cows are revered in Hinduism as symbols of non-violence and are also valued for their agricultural importance. They are associated with deities like Krishna and are often involved in Hindu rituals.
Rats, on the other hand, have a more specific role. They are considered sacred at certain places of worship, such as the Karni Mata Temple in Rajasthan, where they are believed to be reincarnated relatives of the sage Karni Mata.
Hinduism is further characterized by a diversity of beliefs and practices rather than a single set of doctrines. However, some core beliefs and concepts are central to Hindu thought:
1. Brahman & Atman: Hindus believe in a Supreme Universal Soul called Brahman, and each individual soul, known as Atman, is eternal and a reflection of Brahman.
2. Samsara & Karma: The cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara) is driven by karma, the law of cause and effect, where every action has consequences that may be experienced in this life or future lives.
3. Moksha & Dharma: The ultimate goal of human existence is moksha, or liberation from the cycle of samsara. Achieving this goal requires following one's dharma, the ethical and moral duties specific to an individual.
Voting on a Prayer
Back to electability... is it possible the country could elect a Hindu president? Is there any sort of precedent here?
The history of American politics can't exactly be described as a lesson in religious diversity.
In fact, every U.S. president has clearly identified as Christian except for two: Thomas Jefferson, who was a deist, and Abraham Lincoln, whose faith is still often debated by scholars and historians.
Otherwise, it’s been a long line of Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, and hey, even a couple of Catholics too. Some were incredibly pious, others less so, but all of them were Christian in some form or another.
That's not to say that major barriers haven't been torn down before. John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic president, and he famously faced intense scrutiny over his faith. Critics at the time insisted JFK would be beholden to the Vatican over the American people (and those concerns emerged again when the second Catholic president, Joe Biden, took office in 2021).
Notably, however: when JFK was elected, Catholics made up nearly 23% of the U.S. population.
As it stands today, less than 1% of Americans identify as Hindu.
What do you think? Would you embrace a candidate whose faith you don't share?