(RNS) — Like many Republican presidential candidates, Vivek Ramaswamy has been outspoken about the role of faith and society. An enthusiastic second-generation Indian American, Ramaswamy also isn’t shy about talking about his own faith.
“I’m a person of faith. Evangelical Christians across the state are also people of faith,” he said in a July interview with NBC News. “We found commonality in our need to defend religious liberty, to stand for faith and patriotism, and stand unapologetically for the fact that we are one nation under God.”
To reach evangelical Christians, the largest religious group skewing Republican, Ramaswamy has affirmed both his Hindu identity and the “Judeo-Christian” civic religion in which he was raised. Ramaswamy attended Catholic School where he studied the Bible, uniquely positioning him to use both faiths in his messaging.
Not everyone is happy with that message. Earlier this week, a conservative pastor went viral for his condemnation of Ramaswamy’s faith.
“If he does not serve the Lord Jesus Christ and stand primarily for Judeo-Christian principles, you will have a fight with God,” said Hank Kunneman, of One Voice Ministries, in a video tweeted by Right Wing Watch on July 24. “You are going to let him put all of his strange gods up in the White House and are we just supposed to blink because he understands policies? No.”
Hindu Americans across the country condemned the pastor’s remarks, including Democratic Congressmen Raja Krishnamoorthi and Ro Khanna. The United States-India Relationship Council, a political action committee dedicated to supporting political candidates who are pro-India, released a public statement.
“We need to expose and condemn this bigotry,” said Amit Desai, founder of the PAC. “By doing so, people will get educated.”
The ancient tradition of Sanatana Dharma — more commonly known as Hinduism — has long been misunderstood by unfamiliar audiences, especially in places like the United States, where Christianity predominates.
A tradition that has more than a billion adherents worldwide, Hinduism does not always fit neatly into categories understood by those more familiar with Abrahamic faiths like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Hindus hold a pluralistic worldview in which many paths exist to experiencing the supreme, eternal spirit of reality known as Brahman.
Brahman, sometimes referred to as God, is a genderless and metaphysical concept, but Hindus believe it manifests itself in the sometimes human-like forms of gods and goddesses. Many Hindus can see the divine revealing itself in the holy people of other religious traditions.
Hindus worship at temples and within their homes to as many murtis as they wish, or embodied forms of God. Families and communities within Hinduism can also have a patron deity, known as an Ishta Devata, that they especially venerate.
To help people from other backgrounds better understand their faith, Ramaswamy, like other American Hindus, has emphasized the elements of Hinduism that relate closely to Christianity — such as a focus on one God that all of humanity shares.
The Hindu American Foundation, the largest nonprofit representing the religious community, has started shifting away from using the word “idol,” instead using “deity,” so as to eliminate the chance of misunderstanding by Christians.
Suhag Shukla, the president of HAF, says that even though God might not necessarily be the appropriate word to equate to Brahman, saying God is the fastest way to communicate with other faith traditions.
“When your goal is to educate people who are wholly unfamiliar with a tradition or a philosophy or religion, you have to meet them where they are,” said Shukla. “The words that might have some resonance for Christians is a good starting point.”
Anantanand Rambachan, a Hindu theologian and author of “Pathways to Hindu-Christian Dialogue,” says that, while it is not incorrect to say Hindus worship one divine being, practitioners should not shy away from explaining that this one being has infinite names and forms. The faith is neither polytheistic nor monotheistic, he says, but something entirely more complex.
“In communicating our tradition, we should not be afraid to be different,” said Rambachan. “To reduce the murtis (idols) only to a symbol, is not to be faithful to centuries of a very sophisticated theology.”
As the first non-Christian chair of the Religion Department at St. Olaf College, a Lutheran school in Minnesota, Rambachan has faced his share of backlash from critics who insisted he could not serve a largely Christian student body.
“Communicating the Hindu point of view in all of its richness and its integrity is possible, but it takes time,” said Rambachan. “Those who are formed and steeped in an exclusive theological position — it is not easy to open their hearts and minds.”
While Hindus have overwhelmingly voted Democrat, some in the community say they are disappointed with the party for not standing against anti-Hindu hatred they say is rampant.
For Desai, a leader of USIRC, Ramaswamy’s battle against what he calls “woke-ism” and his embracing of young voters is enough to sway his vote. He points to Rishi Sunak, the prime minister of the UK and a member of the Conservative Party, as an example of someone who has held his Hindu faith on unapologetic display.
“I always believe that those who respect their own roots are respected by others,” said Desai.
Whether Hindu Americans will be voting for Ramaswamy in the upcoming primaries has yet to be seen. However, Desai and Shukla agree that Hindus need stronger political institutions that educate Hindus about the political process for future generations of Hindu candidates to join leadership positions.
“As a Hindu American, I never envisioned a future, at least not in my lifetime, that we would have candidates running for any office that would be so proud of their heritage,” said Shukla. “And that the teachings and values that they have inherited could serve as inspiration for their public service.”