By DEEPA BHARATH
The Associated Press
Vivek Ramaswamy is as comfortable talking about Bible stories as he is sharing the message of the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most sacred Hindu texts.
The 37-year-old biotech entrepreneur turned Republican presidential candidate has been steadily garnering support in a party dominated by conservative Christians. In many polls, he’s in third place behind former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and he is one of six candidates who have qualified for the first GOP presidential debate on Aug. 23.
He is also only the nation’s second Hindu presidential candidate. Tulsi Gabbard, the former Hawaii congresswoman, ran as a Democrat in 2020.
Ramaswamy shared 10 core beliefs as part of his campaign, with “God is real” topping the list followed by “There are two genders.” He cascaded into the limelight with his 2021 book “Woke Inc: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam,” a scathing critique of corporations that he says use social justice causes as a smokescreen for self-interested policies.
He became a regular commentator on Fox News and other conservative outlets, backing capitalism and meritocracy, and criticizing affirmative action, mask mandates and open borders. He is anti-abortion and believes gender dysphoria should be treated as a mental illness. He has expressed support for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose populist policies have been divisive.
On the campaign trail, Ramaswamy has leaned into his faith as he vies for the nomination of a party where evangelical Christian support is key. In speeches and casual conversations with these voters, he maintains that his religion has much in common with “the Judeo-Christian values this nation was founded on.”
“I’m an ardent defender of religious liberty,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I will be an even more vocal and unapologetic defender of it precisely because no one is going to accuse me of being a Christian nationalist.”
While questions have been raised about his ability to appeal to conservative Christian voters, Ramaswamy said he has more in common with people of all faiths than those with no faith at all.
“I was raised in a belief system where there is one true God who empowers each of us with our own capacities,” he said. “As we say in the Hindu tradition, God resides in each one of us. In the Christian tradition, you say we’re all made in the image of God.”
The child of immigrants from southern India, Ramaswamy grew up in Cincinnati speaking Tamil at home with his religious parents who performed pujas — a form of worship rituals. He heard stories from Hindu epics, offered daily prayers to deities and attended temples in Dayton and Cincinnati. He and his wife, Apoorva, a physician, plan to raise their two sons as Hindus.
Ramaswamy said he was also deeply influenced by Christians. He cemented his anti-abortion stance while attending St. Xavier Catholic High School in Cincinnati, and learned a strong “Protestant work ethic” from his piano teacher of 10 years.
“The lessons learned being Hindu were similar and in many ways overlapping with Judeo-Christian values like sacrifice, performing your duty without attachment to the results and believing that your work on this Earth is not being done by you, but through you,” he said, adding these Hindu values seem to resonate with Christian and Jewish audiences.
Not all feedback from Christians has been favorable. Hank Kunneman, a pro-Trump pastor in Nebraska, attacked Ramaswamy’s faith during a recent sermon.
“What are we doing?” he asked his congregation. “You’re going to have some dude put his hand on something other than the Bible? You’re going to let him put all of his strange gods up in the White House?”
Ramaswamy dismissed Kunneman’s views as unrepresentative of most U.S. Christians.
“While my first reaction to such speech is one of frustration, the truth is I’m running to lead a nation…including those who disagree with me.”
His approach is drawing support from influential Christian leaders, including Bob Vander Plaats, who had a front-row seat for Ramaswamy’s recent campaign visit to Iowa. He said Ramswamy’s “common sense values and shared virtues” are the reasons he is being “very warmly received by audiences of faith.”
While Ramaswamy’s faith may not be ideal for some Christian voters, it comes down to making the best choice available, said Vander Plaats, president of a conservative group, The Family Leader.
“If we were to tailor-make a candidate, it would be someone who shares our faith,” he said. “But, I’d much rather see him (as president) than Joe Biden, Kamala Harris or Gavin Newsom.”
Most Hindu Americans and Indian Americans, on the other hand, tend to vote Democratic and be progressive on social issues like abortion, immigration and LGBTQ rights. They are divided over Ramaswamy’s candidacy; some are particularly irked by his eagerness to equate Hindu and Christian teachings.
“He is taking great care to show a certain aspect of Hinduism without talking about mysticism and polytheism, which are core aspects of the religion,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder of AAPI Data and a public policy professor at the University of California, Riverside.
Still, Ramaswamy is “feeding a certain need in the Republican party” and is getting attention because he is a novelty in ways that Andrew Yang was for Democrats in 2020, Ramakrishnan said. “He is among those candidates who may not have all those expected attributes or the experience … but through the power of their ideas, are able to get into the conversation.”
Ria Chakrabarty, policy director of Hindus for Human Rights, said she is concerned by Ramaswamy’s attempt to “package Hinduism in the family values mold, talking about it as a monotheistic religion to appeal to the Abrahamic faiths.”
“From a Hindu perspective, every person has a fundamental right to make a choice about how they want to access health care,” she said. “(Ramaswamy) saying unborn life is life, what does that mean policy-wise? It’s also worrying to see a Hindu feed into LGBTQ hate because Hinduism has a rich history when it comes to queerness.”
For other Hindu Americans who may disagree with Ramaswamy’s views, his candidacy still represents an important shift in American politics.
“I don’t share his politics by a mile,” said Sumit Ganguly, a political science professor at Indiana University. “But he is gutsy for not hiding his faith or converting to Christianity for political gain. This might not have been possible 10 years ago.”
Ramaswamy still has a steep hill to climb because most Americans know little about Hinduism, Ganguly said.
Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, said that when Hindu Americans run for any office “it’s inspirational for kids to know they can be who they are and be proud of their heritage and values.”
Ramaswamy’s candidacy also reflects the growing political diversity within the Hindu community, Shukla said.
For Republican voters, Vander Plaats said Ramaswamy’s continued success hinges on distinguishing himself from the GOP front-runners. He compared Ramaswamy to Queen Esther in the Bible who was chosen by God to save the Jewish people from genocide:
“He needs to show us why this is his Esther moment.”
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.