June 15th, 2010
09:25 AM ET
4 years ago

Haley's path to Christianity leaves some evangelicals uneasy

In the wake of Nikki Haley's swift rise, her religious journey has become an increasingly common topic of discussion in churches, at community gatherings and online.
In the wake of Nikki Haley's swift rise, her religious journey has become an increasingly common topic of discussion in churches, at community gatherings and online.

(CNN) - Whispers about Nikki Haley's Sikh heritage burst into public view in the final days of South Carolina's Republican gubernatorial primary when state Sen. Jake Knotts called the Indian-American legislator a "raghead."

Knotts offered a pseudo-apology and was roundly condemned for the remark. Haley went on to win the primary in dominant fashion, capturing nearly 50 percent of the vote in a four-way race. She now faces Rep. Gresham Barrett in the June 22 runoff election.

But while Haley's commanding win last Tuesday proved her electoral viability - she won 42 of the state's 46 counties in the primary, including evangelical-heavy areas like Greenville and Spartanburg - it did not completely erase suspicions about her faith.

Haley was raised Sikh but converted to Christianity at the age of 24 and now attends a Methodist church in Lexington County, her campaign says.

CNN surveyed nearly two dozen faith leaders and conservative activists across the state on Monday to see what their communities are saying about Haley's religion as she stands on the verge of capturing the GOP nomination.

Few predicted that questions about Haley's background will hurt her in the runoff against Barrett or in a general election match-up against Democrat Vincent Sheheen. But most said that in the wake of Haley's swift rise, her religious journey has become an increasingly common topic of discussion in churches, at community gatherings and online.

"The heritage issue is starting to bubble up on emails," said former Charleston County GOP chairwoman Cyndi Mosteller, who supported Attorney General Henry McMaster in the gubernatorial primary. "I am hearing those questions."

Haley, born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa, still attends Sikh services occasionally with her parents and extended family. In 2004, after winning her first term in the state legislature, the Charlotte Observer quoted Haley as saying she and her family attend "both" Methodist and Sikh services.

As routine as that may sound to families of mixed faith, her ties to the Sikh tradition have left some evangelicals in the state uneasy.

Ray Popham, pastor of Oasis Church International in Aiken, said Haley's religion is a "big topic" among his congregants, who have posted notes about her religion on Facebook and have lately approached him for advice about the governor's race.

"She claims to be a Christian but also attends a Sikh temple and was married in a Sikh ceremony, so a lot of people can't figure how you can claim both," Popham told CNN. "I think she needs to be straight up with people, if she is both. If she believes that you can be both, then she should say that up front."

Tony Beam, the interim pastor of Mount Creek Baptist church in Greenville, hosts a radio show called "Christian Worldview Today." He recently posed a question to his listeners: Is Nikki Haley being honest about her faith?

Beam said several callers were not sure if Haley had completely abandoned her Sikh beliefs.

"People want to know if she is being completely forthright about it," said Beam, a Barrett supporter. "Once you commit to Christianity, it excludes other religions. I am not saying she is not who she says she is, but I do know those questions are being raised"

Haley's campaign has taken steps to address the issue. On her campaign website, language about her religion was recently tweaked to emphasize her commitment to Jesus Christ.

In April, under the question "Is Nikki a Christian?" the website quoted Haley as saying: "I believe in the power and grace of Almighty God."

Two months later, after Haley's campaign said it received inquiries about which "Almighty God" was being referenced, the language was altered. Haley is now quoted on her website as saying, "Being a Christian is not about words, but about living for Christ every day."

But other Christian leaders said that while questions about Haley's faith are becoming more common, they are unlikely to influence the election.

Oran Smith, the president of the Palmetto Family Council, said voters often came to him for guidance during the Republican primary. Smith said he told them there was very little difference between the candidates, including Haley or Barrett, on key social issues.

A few voters asked him for more information about Haley's faith, he recalled, but added: "I don't hear a lot of average church people talking about."

"Most people can't even pronounce 'Sikh,' even the ones that are criticizing her," Smith told CNN.

Knotts, the controversial lawmaker, has accused reporters of giving Haley "a free ride" on the religion issue. "Have you ever asked her if she believes in Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savoir and that he died on the cross for her sins?" he asked a reporter from WIS-TV last week.

One pastor told CNN he asked Haley that very question in a face-to-face sit down at his church in February, and was pleased with her answer.

"She told me that she had converted to Christianity and she was a Christian," said Tim Butler, the pastor of Victory Baptist Church in Charleston. "She expressed her reliance on that on a daily basis. I told her about how my decision to become a Christian changed my life, and she did the same."


Filed under: 2010 • Nikki Haley • Popular Posts • South Carolina
soundoff (44 Responses)
  1. Bennet

    You cannot know a persons heart so to say Evangelicals have an issue with her Christianity is ridiculous. This is media drivel and a typical set up for hate speech against Chistrians you get from the loons. Sadly you also see the same hate speech against Jews frequently.

    June 15, 2010 10:17 am at 10:17 am |
  2. don

    The Christian Right has lost all credibility anyway. They love Mitt Romney and Glenn Beck both Mormons so this should not suprise anyone. Truth is it sholdn't. bother anyone

    June 15, 2010 10:18 am at 10:18 am |
  3. Guest

    It's so sad that one has to change his/her religion to be elected to public office. People must realize that the administrative talent is not tied to religion. Very sad that a developed nation USA is not coming out of medieval times.

    June 15, 2010 10:21 am at 10:21 am |
  4. Mikey

    Thomas Jefferson is rolling in his grave. Read his writings on religious tests for office as it relates to the Virginia statute for religious freedom, the model for the religious protections enshrined in our Constitution. Her religious views are only relevant to the extent they impact her public policy decisions, and certainly not the subject for anyone's religious bigotry.

    June 15, 2010 10:26 am at 10:26 am |
  5. Darth Vadik, CA

    Who the heck cares if she's a twirling Dervish, except that the Republicans are an evil breed, and dislike anything that is not white and a fundamentalist Taliban style Christian.

    But then again they are a dying breed, so I cant say good riddance soon enough.

    I hope they piss her off so much that she becomes what all moderate Republicans have lately...

    ...a Democrat.

    June 15, 2010 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  6. Johio

    These people who question her religion most likely also claim to be strict constructionist when it comes to the Constitution. But I guess not that part that strictly prohibits religious tests for public office. Hypocrites. I'm not a Republican or a Christian, but really. This woman made the very difficult decision to abandon the faith she was raised in at 24 years old so she could someday run for Governor of South Carolina? Delusional hypocrites.

    June 15, 2010 10:28 am at 10:28 am |
  7. Rick McDaniel

    This is a non-issue. The issue is......will this candidate serve the people of SC, in a good way?

    June 15, 2010 10:30 am at 10:30 am |
  8. CREEEEEEPPPPYYYYYY

    I don't care what religion she is or if she is religious at all. Those crazy eyes and phony grin are enough to scare me away. She is just creepy.

    June 15, 2010 10:30 am at 10:30 am |
  9. Randolph Carter, I'm no expert but...

    Seriously? Correct me if I'm wrong but this is the 21st century, right? Who cares what her religion is? This was never intended to be a Christian country. The "founding fathers" were children of the enlightenment. You may have heard of it. You know, the whole relying on reason and observation instead of superstition and folklore thing. Last I heard religion is not a requirement for running for public office. What a bunch of backward hicks. Have a nice day!

    June 15, 2010 10:31 am at 10:31 am |
  10. aNTHONY

    KEEP YOUR RELIGION OUT OF MY POLITICS.

    They griped about Obama being MUSLIM (who cares and what does it matter)
    Now theyll gripe about Haley having Sikh roots.
    Land of the "FREE" huh?? Not if you dont subscribe to the same religion they do.

    Seriously, folks.

    Blind faith is no substitue for logic or rational decision making skills.

    June 15, 2010 10:31 am at 10:31 am |
  11. FlexSF

    Religion is jaw dropping stupid. Can't relate.

    June 15, 2010 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  12. Greg

    NYC is building a muslim temple not far from where the Twin Towers fell... does it really matter if she is Sikh or Christian, does being a conservative necessarily mean you have to be Christian? When Republicans cannot even agree to an abortion litmus test, or even abortion as a part of the party plank, how is it we can complain about what religion Nikki Haley is? How many so-called Christian politicians, even Catholic politicians believe its infinitely more important not to tell a woman what she can do with her body than protecting the unborn? Calling her a raghead should have been the end of Jake Knotts poitical career... but because of her familial ties to the Sikh, he gets a pass in South Carolina? If being a Christian is the litmus test, then who is MORE Christian? Baptist? Methodist? What about being Jewish? I wonder what Mr. Knotts would have to say to them? I would think that since the days of JFK, religion would not be such a deciding factory, but when Haley carries a clear majority of voters, 42 of 46 counties in the state, her opponents will do what they can to smear and dissuade voters. I'm much more concerned with her conservative credentials than where she worships with her family.

    June 15, 2010 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  13. Ron

    "Does she believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and that he died on the cross for her sins?" What the does this have to do with anything?
    I thought we had some semblance of separation of church and state left in this country. I might add that this is typical of right-wing Christian conservatives: they will crucify you if you don't totally follow the party line.
    Contrary to these critics, if she is a real Christian, she will continue to be respectful of her family and the Sikh faith.

    June 15, 2010 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  14. Senator

    So What? there's not enough room on this screen to name all of the politicians that 'claimed' to be a Christian and was something else, not to mention all the so called 'christians' that claim to be Christians!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    June 15, 2010 10:39 am at 10:39 am |
  15. Warren

    As a democrat that personally does not want Nikki Haley to be the next Governor, I strongly believe that someone's religion should be a private matter. Her religion is nobody's business but her own.

    June 15, 2010 10:41 am at 10:41 am |
  16. S Callahan

    And what does Jesus ask?...He tells us to give our testimony and according to Tim Butler..she has done that. There is but one judge and that is The Lord himself. Go easy.

    June 15, 2010 10:46 am at 10:46 am |
  17. EddieInRI

    It seems that mainly those on the far right believe that religion and politics should go hand in hand. What ever happened to voting on a candidate's stance on issues and not voting based on someone's religious beliefs?
    And then these are the same people that want to turn the theocracy of Iran into a pile of smoldering ash...

    June 15, 2010 10:47 am at 10:47 am |
  18. Carl Swensen

    So what. Obama is suspect with his two religions. May not even suspect. Maybe only one and it isn't J Wright's.

    June 15, 2010 10:48 am at 10:48 am |
  19. Matt

    I can only hope that the day comes when religion is not a prerequisite for elected office. After reading some of the 4700+ blog entries on Yahoo's article about the statue of Jesus that was hit by lightning, I truly feel that John Lennon was absolutely correct in his song "Imagine" that the world would be better off without religion.

    June 15, 2010 10:53 am at 10:53 am |
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