Constructing Religion in the SC Governor’s Race

For me, religion will always be constructed in South Carolina.  As an undergraduate at the College of Charleston I became fascinated with the category or “religion” and began the long road toward a career studying it.  Now, I look back to the Palmetto state again and see the ways the current race for governor is reconstructing Christianity and religion.  Peter Hambly has written a great piece probing into the role Nikki Haley’s religious identity is playing in the race.  In the wake of being slurred a “raghead” by state senator Jake Knotts, Haley has pushed into a primary runoff that many believe she will win.

Haley is a second generation Indian-American whose parents are Sikh, who self-identifies as a Christian, grew up in South Carolina, and even picked up a Southern accent along the way.  It’s the tension between all of these layers of her identity that is beginning to draw curiosity and interest.  As Hambly notes, Haley attends both Methodist and Sikh services, especially with her parents and extended family.  This inter-religious practice is leaving some evangelicals in South Carolina 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.

What immediately jumps out to me in the midst of this kerfuffle is that there are various understandings of what counts as religion and as Christianity flying around.  For most conservative evangelicals their religious identity centers around belief.  The belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus is what makes one a Christian.  Yes, there are other things that make one an evangelical Christian but they tend to center around correct belief.  It’s all about orthodoxy.  But what about other religious cultures?  This focus on right belief–on an orthodox religion–doesn’t translate across cultures.  The Sikhism of Nikki Haley’s family is more about orthopraxy.  That is, it is about correct practice.  You do things because they are what you do.  To be Sikh is to do the things a Sikh does first and foremost.

Indian religions have sometimes struggled to adapt to an American religious landscape that emphasizes meaning and belief over ritual and practice.  As a white guy visiting Hindu temples in North Carolina I’ve often noticed how practitioners there felt the need to try and explain their religious practices to me, mostly through references to Christian symbols and meanings, when such explanations wouldn’t happen in India.

I really have no interest in deciding whether or not Haley is a good Methodist or a good Sikh, or whether she’s religious at all.  What these questions about Haley’s religiosity point out, however, is the ways our public definitions of religion are generally shallow and Christian at bottom.  They are about what one believes first, and what one does only matters insofar as it can be grounded in doctrine or explanation.  The problem with focusing on right belief is that you can never be sure.  It is impossible to really know what someone believes and so there are always anxieties and questions of authenticity.  That’s what lies behind much of this discussion of Haley’s religion.  Is she authentic?  I don’t know nor do I think that it is an important question.   I’m more interested in what gets lost in translation between Anglo-American Christian notions of orthodoxy and Indian forms of orthopraxy.

Edit–this post is now cross-posted at the Religion in American History Blog

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