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. Teaneck

    Why should her religion be an issue. Is it because she is a Christian?

    June 15, 2010 09:31 am at 9:31 am |
  2. JC in SC

    News Flash!! Some atheists convert to Christianity.

    June 15, 2010 09:31 am at 9:31 am |
  3. Sniffit

    Yay!!!! Three cheers for the Dark Ages!!!! Raise your hand if you sit around the housing wishing for the good old days of inquisitions and stonings and burning heathens at the stake!!!! Yaaaaaay!!!!

    Stop encouraging them CNN...they are useless wastes who, despite all their incessant blather about the Constitution, founding father and the roots of this nation, don't have the slightest freekin clue what they're talking about. They were raised wrong. Period.

    June 15, 2010 09:34 am at 9:34 am |
  4. KMAN821

    Bible-thumpers are an odd breed to any thinking individual ... whereas their god may be impressive ... they sure as hell are not.

    June 15, 2010 09:37 am at 9:37 am |
  5. Al-NY,NY

    oh no.....she may not be "Christian" enough for these zealots. Get a life churchies and settle down.

    June 15, 2010 09:38 am at 9:38 am |
  6. copy editor

    "Have you ever asked her if she believes in Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savoir..." SAVOIR? Are you kidding me, CNN? It's hard to be a nationally respected news organization with errors and typos like this. Maybe that's why your ratings are plummeting.

    June 15, 2010 09:39 am at 9:39 am |
  7. Jilli

    Next think ya' know neanderthals like Knotts will be calling for her birth certificate.

    Here's a tip So Carolina – she's running for governor, not pope.

    Why not just elect a trained chimp to run So Carolina – it's IQ would probably be higher than the residents.

    June 15, 2010 09:40 am at 9:40 am |
  8. Nathaniel C.

    She says she is a Christian. I think that our own Christian love and charity demands that we take her at her word.

    If you demand public professions of faith from our politicians, you're just asking to be lied to. No matter what her actual beliefs are, if you put her through the ringer, she'll feed you what you want to hear; if she were to answer otherwise, you'd crucify her.

    June 15, 2010 09:42 am at 9:42 am |
  9. Bubba

    Well, you have to convert to get elected in this country. Sincere? Who knows? Who cares really if she does her job right?

    June 15, 2010 09:45 am at 9:45 am |
  10. MR AMERICA

    Is this the 17th century??? Why do these backwards knuckle-draggers care what kind of church they go to, other than to practice bigotry and not support someone that is not exactly like them?
    There are plenty of Americans in the USA that were born in other countries and grew up with different religious backgrounds...get used to it and grow up!

    Not that MR AMERICA would ever vote for a Republican, since they are wrong on 95% of ALL issues. But a candidte's faith or sexuality would never be a consideration...because we are in AMERICA.

    June 15, 2010 09:46 am at 9:46 am |
  11. mike persaud

    Why do people like Nikki bear the illusion that they can ever be accepted as equal within the conservative movement?

    June 15, 2010 09:48 am at 9:48 am |
  12. BrianME

    It's moronic in this day and age, with so many issues needing to be debated, that people care what her religion is. It doesn't matter people! What's wrong with you?

    June 15, 2010 09:49 am at 9:49 am |
  13. billybob 'n NC

    "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."

    Knotts, no one saved by the grace of Christ and lives the commandment of "love your neighbor" would ever call someone a blatant racist term like "rag head!" I suggest you take a look at whether or not you are just faking your faith.

    June 15, 2010 09:50 am at 9:50 am |
  14. John Wilson, Racine, WI

    Isn't it just Gr8!

    We are now electing people for public office based on their superstition(i.e. Religion) ... This would be sad enough if it only applied to SC, however, it applies to the entire USA!

    I can only speak for myself, but I REALLY want you RELIGIOUS folks to take your infantile superstitions back to your home and keep them OUT OF MY GOVERNMENT!

    June 15, 2010 09:52 am at 9:52 am |
  15. Pete in Guilford

    And we wonder why this country is so screwed up. What, exactly, does her religion have to do with how she would govern? Time for people to grow up and live in the REAL world. With any luck the Christian Taliban will deem her unfit and a Democrat will get elected.

    June 15, 2010 09:52 am at 9:52 am |
  16. Libertarian

    Here we go again. Why can't she believe in "Almighty God" and still be a Christian?? Billy Graham uses that term all the time. Oh yeah...he's an old white guy with a southern accent whose grandparents owned slaves....he MUST be a true Christian. The religious right has made such a joke out of Christianity. It's obvious you want your own Taliban-like state in which to create and recreate your own rules at will.

    June 15, 2010 09:52 am at 9:52 am |
  17. victoria

    Being a Democrat, I can't say that I hope this lady wins the election....but I do hope that the questioning of her faith by the Evangelicals is not the reason if she doesn't win the nomination. Religion needs to stay out of politics. Our Founding Fathers never meant for it to be a requirement. Besides, she is probably living a more "Christian-like" life than many of the people who are starting to ask questions.....

    June 15, 2010 09:53 am at 9:53 am |
  18. Steve

    Are you kidding me? People are actually worried about HOW she converted to Christianity? How about that the fact that she simply DID convert? That is the more important FACT.

    June 15, 2010 09:55 am at 9:55 am |
  19. Inquisitors Vs. Methodists

    wow. sounds like those folks want to restart the Inquisition to determine the degree of one's christianity.

    Why would some 'Christians' doubt someone else's journey to Christ? You're supposed to welcome people into the faith. Do you doubt that people can convert? Do you doubt your own faith? Go back and read the passages about not judging, pulling the plank from your own eye, etc. Maybe purge your own congregation of "those less than 100%" christians, then come apply your litmus test to public figures.

    June 15, 2010 10:04 am at 10:04 am |
  20. All the news that is fit to omit

    First off, who gives a bleep about her FAITH, oops, CNN and the media does?

    Second, she has been a christian for years, good for her, again, WHO CARES.

    Thirdly, it is fine to question the smart, attractice Conservative women on faith, but heaven forbid we talk about the FACTS of Heir Obambi and his upbringing.

    I can see November from my houise Barry, and you "aint" gonna like the view.

    June 15, 2010 10:06 am at 10:06 am |
  21. Denver

    People who worry about other people's religion should remove the beam from their eye before attending to the splinter in another.

    June 15, 2010 10:07 am at 10:07 am |
  22. Joe from CT, not Lieberman

    I would be willing to bet if she attended a Southern Baptist, or Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, there would be a lot less suspicion than her attending a United Methodist Church. After all, Methodist churches are notoriously Liberal! I should know as I proudly belong to that denomination.
    Geez, just think, if she was a Catholic, then her fellow South Carolinian Republicans could claim she is a Papist tool! Or if she was LDS, they could claim she is trying to pave the way for Mitt Romney!

    June 15, 2010 10:10 am at 10:10 am |
  23. called an Indian-American legislator a "raghead."

    you just can't make this stuff up

    politicians are ABSOLUTELY worth all the trouble they cause

    too funny

    June 15, 2010 10:10 am at 10:10 am |
  24. Kraznodar

    Her religion is irrelevant. This is the USA, a secular nation. Having researched the Sikh faith I must say that while I don't think they have the whole truth, they are much better people than most and tend to live very Christian style lives.

    The people of South Carolina would be lucky to have a Sikh represent them. The fact that she is Christian just makes it better. Unlike Muslims that teach that people leaving the faith must be killed, the Sikhs teach tolerance so she would still be able to associate with other Sikhs and still visit the temple with family and friends.

    June 15, 2010 10:13 am at 10:13 am |
  25. Beverly - NYC

    Why is that those who claim to know Jesus act most like the devil. Who cares what her religion is, she believes in some higher being. Worry about your own life and salvation.

    June 15, 2010 10:14 am at 10:14 am |
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