Why you should care
Because faith in politics is not colorblind.
OZY was first to this story, putting you ahead of the curve. View More OZY Originals
Briefly imagine yourself as the best GOP candidate to become the next American president. It’s not hard — half the Republican Party already has. You’ve got bona fide conservative credentials, maybe been a governor or senator for a state or two; heck, for fantasy’s sake, toss in an Ivy League education and a Purple Heart. You’ve fought the unions, cut taxes and entitlements, created jobs, balanced budgets, kissed babies and championed the Constitution. But wait: Do you have a great religious conversion story? No? That’s a shame — back to the private sector for you!
Once the telltale tack of former keg-tapping, pot-smoking white men who were trying to show that they had found God on the way to Damascus (think: Dubya Bush, Ralph Reed), the crucial conversion tale has taken on a newfound importance in an election relatively scarce of traditional candidates. Trump, for instance, who has to make up for a lack of social conservative track record, tells us the Bible is his favorite read (above only his own The Art of the Deal). In 2008 and 2012, white evangelicals alone made up a quarter of voters in the final presidential tally. Now, that conversion narrative is more important for not just the political outsiders but the “other” candidates who must prove to the GOP that, hey, we really are on your team — no need to be scared of our differences. “Ethnic minorities, or those with an immigrant past, may seem unfamiliar to white evangelicals,” says Robert P. Jones, CEO of the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute. “For candidates who are not themselves white, it’s going to matter more for them to marry their own story with something that will connect.”
Take rapidly rising retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a Seventh-day Adventist who revealed how he quieted his rage and found God as a teenager after reading the Book of Proverbs while locked in a bathroom for three hours. He speaks about personal work ethic and individual responsibility as keys to a successful spiritual and material life, rhetoric that resonates with Republican voters — in a recent NBC News national online poll, white evangelical support for Carson jumped from 20 to 33 percent. “When you get into how Carson fuses his politics with his faith, it more clearly relates to the white evangelical side,” says sociologist Jason E. Shelton, co-author of Blacks and Whites in Christian America. For Black Protestants, who often trend liberal, the emphasis is about the larger context of government failures and structural limits that cause poverty or societal ills.
In that sense, Carson’s self-deterministic views and quiet demeanor distance him from the stereotypical Black church that has made white conservatives uneasy for decades. “I heard so much about Black preaching, Black music and Black worship,” frets Paul F. Wohlgemuth, in his 1980 essay “The Fears of Race Relations: Confessions of a White Pastor.” If there’s any doubt whether that feeling still lingers today, think of the national angst over whether Obama is Christian enough. Or how people responded to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s use of the phrase “God damn America,” when voicing the sentiment that African-American churches have the deck stacked against them. “It may feel overwhelming for a white evangelical to walk into a very vibrant service,” Jones says, adding that African-American Protestants feel similarly out of place in evangelical churches. Hence the desire for a bridge.
Now consider Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who changed their names (originally Piyush and Nimrata Nikki Randhawa, respectively) and religions (raised Hindu and Sikh, before converting to Christianity). Haley still attends services at a Sikh gurdwara, as well as a Methodist church, and when voters started publicly questioning her beliefs in April 2010, she changed a section of her website from mentioning “God” broadly to mention “Jesus Christ” explicitly. As for Jindal, he was a rising star and policy wonk when he got the honor of giving the Republican response to the president’s address to Congress in 2009, but this election he has swung to the right on social issues. (That hasn’t worked for him, as he’s still at the kiddie table, but his choice to do so says a lot.)
To be clear, there’s only so much a good conversion story can do for a campaign taking on water. And, says Lara Brown, director of the political management program at George Washington University, “The evangelicals backed Rick Santorum, and then Mike Huckabee, and didn’t get their candidates” in the last two elections. A true evangelical candidate, says Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz, could even prove to be “a trap” for Republicans. In general elections, more moderate views historically prevail, he says.
That won’t stop the hopefuls from bending over backward to regale voters with their spiritual awakenings, and perhaps the point of such tales isn’t just to win. More than anything, the conversion story establishes a common ground with religious voters. New faces — who might typically be distrusted — get in the door, so when a candidate disagrees on, say, immigration reform, he or she can at least say so from the same side of the pew. “It humanizes them,” says Shelton, the sociologist. “It speaks to this notion of Christianity as part of our identity as a nation.”