[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/05/27/art.nikkihaley8.nh.jpg caption ="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."