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With her newsworthy ‘firsts,’ don’t ignore religion angles in Nikki Haley vs. Donald Trump

We must pay attention to how Haley's presidential campaign and the press treat her religious beliefs, Richard Ostling writes.

Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks with the media after a campaign event with U.S. Senator Martha McSally at a home in Scottsdale, Arizona. Creative Commons photo by Gage Skidmore.

(Opinion – Religion Unplugged) — As a woman and as a child of immigrants from India, new presidential candidate Nikki Haley has scored notable career “firsts.”

But the media shouldn’t ignore that her life story is more religiously intriguing than any of the 16 Republicans on CNN’s list of other potential challengers to Donald Trump. She’s been regularly subjected to questions about conversion from her parents’ Sikh religious faith to Christianity at age 24.

Moreover, Haley right now has a link to a huge 2023 story, the global split in the United Methodist Church. Haley and family are members of Mt. Horeb church in Lexington, South Carolina’s largest UMC congregation, with 5,000-plus members.

The congregation is in the process of deciding whether to leave the denomination after 132 years due to progressive trends in the denomination’s doctrines and discipline that conservatives believe will undermine the Bible’s authority, including on “sexual ethics.” Local coverage here: “SC’s largest United Methodist Church prepares to leave denomination.” Two-thirds approval will be needed to depart.

This doctrinal dispute may not matter in Republican primaries, but it’s easy to imagine Democrats highlighting religious affiliation and LGBTQ concerns if underdog Haley manages to win the Republican nomination for president or vice president.

Already, LGBTQNation and People For the American Way’s Right Wing Watch are on the warpath. Note the targeting of Haley’s friend Pastor John Hagee, who prayed at her campaign launch. As a candidate, she will need strong support from cultural conservatives, which will require clear stands on issues linked to parental rights, religious liberty and abortion.

Born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa and raised in Sikhism, Haley was encouraged by her parents to visit varied churches and understand the surrounding culture. She married husband Michael in both Sikh and Methodist ceremonies and soon after converted to Christianity. She occasionally visits Sikh gurdwaras out of respect for her family’s heritage and has toured the religion’s holiest site, the Golden Temple in India.

During her rapid rise to be a South Carolina legislator and governor and then Trump’s United Nations ambassador, Haley has endured religious potshots from both right and left.

A Baptist preacher who favored her opponent declared that Christian commitment “excludes other religions” so “questions are being asked.” A veteran legislator who called Haley a “rag—-” (a Google-banned racial slur) claimed “everyone knew she converted for political purposes.” Campaign foes labeled her a Buddhist and a Muslim.

Skeptics noted that in the 2010 campaign, her website said, “I believe in the power and grace of Almighty God.” But when questions arose over Christian authenticity, this was rewritten to profess “my faith in Christ” and “living for Christ every day.” See this 2010 GetReligion post: “What? Nikki Haley’s faith evolving?

That year, National Public Radio posted a remarkably judgmental piece by Indian American Sohini Baliga about Haley’s “Christian bit” and concluded, “I’m not buying.” To Baliga, an apparent “conversion of convenience” is “politically expedient.” Also note this 2020 attack upon “Trikki” Nikki and last week’s examination by Religion News Service columnist Khyati Joshi, author of “White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America.”

So, then, how does Haley herself explain her faith? Here, reporters can benefit from a 2012 Christianity Today interview by Sarah Pulliam Bailey (now of The Washington Post). Haley, who sidestepped the “evangelical” label, said, “Yes, my husband and I are Christians, but we’re not going to say anything negative about the way my parents raised me. … We both feel like we have personal relationships with God that we want to continue to strengthen for ourselves and for our family.”

Haley’s campaign could anchor timely features on Sikhism, locally or nationally. This world religion was founded by the 15th century Guru Nanak in the Punjab region of northern India. It synthesizes its own unique teachings and practices (for example, men’s turbans and uncut hair) with beliefs from Islam (the one all-powerful God) and Hinduism (the law of karma and cycle of rebirths).

Another news link, through the years: Cases involving the lives and traditions of Sikh believers have played an important role in legal debates about religious liberty in the United States. See this Pew Research Center essay on that subject.

Pew Research estimates there are 200,000 Sikhs, children included, in the United States. In 1956, California Democrat Dalip Singh Saund became the first Asian American in Congress and, to date, the only Sikh.

by Richard Ostling, a former religion reporter for The Associated Press and a former correspondent for TIME Magazine. He’s also worked in broadcast TV and radio journalism covering religion and received a lifetime achievement award from Religion News Association. This piece first appeared at
Religion Unplugged believes in a diversity of well-reasoned and well-researched opinions. This piece reflects the views of the author and does not necessarily represent those of Religion Unplugged or Presbyterian Outlook.