IN GOD THEY TRUST - Why did Barack Obama and Bobby Jindal become Christians?

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By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 8.05.08

A conservative columnist in the New York Times, William Kristol, suggested Bobby Jindal’s name as a possible running mate for the Republican presidential nominee, John McCain. Bobby Jindal is the recently elected governor of Louisiana and in Kristol’s view, he has several qualities that recommend him. He is young: at 36, he is barely half John McCain’s 71 years and a McCain-Jindal ticket would help draw the sting of the charge that McCain is too old to run. He is properly conservative, unlike McCain who is suspected by the Republican base of flirting with liberal positions when it comes to ‘social’ issues such as abortion. Jindal is an uncompromising hardliner on abortion: he opposes it in every case, even if the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape.

It helps that he’s very bright (he graduated from Brown and went on to do a Masters at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship) and has an extraordinary resumé given his youth. He was the secretary of Louisiana’s department of health at the age of 24, he has been an assistant secretary of state at the federal level under George W. Bush, a two-term Congressman, president of the Louisiana university system and now governor. Also, in a year where the Democrats are making history with Barack Obama, it doesn’t hurt that Bobby Jindal is every bit as brown as the senator from Illinois.

Ideologically, Obama and Jindal occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum (Obama has an ultra-liberal voting record while Jindal’s positions are right of Genghis Khan’s) but they do have one thing in common: both men weren’t born Christian, they became Christians. Obama’s white mother practised social anthropology more enthusiastically than she did her Christian faith. His father and step-father were nominally Muslim. Jindal’s parents are still Hindus.

Obama and Jindal chose to become Christian and the sort of church they chose was closely connected with the social world into which they wished to be assimilated. Jindal became a Roman Catholic, the dominant form of Christianity in Louisiana, while Obama, after a largely secular upbringing in Hawaii, the latter part of which was supervised by his white grandmother, chose to join a black mega-church in Chicago as he set about rooting himself in the community as an organizer and as an aspiring politician.

Jindal and Obama ascribe their conversion to Christianity to spiritual experiences. This must be true, but it’s hard not to see in their embrace of Christianity a more instrumental purpose. Despite the constitutional separation of church and state in the United States America, being a church-going Christian is a necessary credential for high political office.

The one exception that I can think of is Senator Joseph Lieberman, who recently retained his Senate seat as an independent candidate. Lieberman was also Al Gore’s running mate in the former’s ill-fated presidential campaign in 2000. In America’s political and intellectual culture, Jews tend to be seen as ur-Christians, as people of roughly the same Book. The constant invocation of the Judaeo-Christian bedrock of Western civilization, reinforces this exceptional status. Lieberman’s success as a senior politician is paralleled by Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York. Bloomberg is Jewish, and for some months it was rumoured that he was considering running for the presidency as an independent candidate. Eventually, he chose not to run, which was in many ways a pity because a presidential bid would have been a test case for the proposition that for the top jobs in American electoral politics, only Christians need apply.

Obama’s initiation into Christianity was an essential preliminary to a career in politics. The fact that he had a Muslim father, Muslim relatives in Kenya and a Muslim middle name (Hussain) required him to assert a visible public identity that would distance him from the politically damaging perception that he was some manner of Muslim. If the row over his former pastor’s eccentric sermons, in which the Reverend Wright denounced white people and the American state, had a silver lining, it was this: the controversy made sure that Obama was associated in the minds of most Americans voters with a radical black church rather than with Islam. Even so, a recent poll revealed that some 15 percent of Democratic primary voters believed that Obama was a Muslim or, worse, a covert Muslim hiding behind a Christian façade. Whether he planned this or not, for Obama, being Christian is the ultimate way of not being Muslim.

Similarly Bobby Jindal’s Roman Catholicism has helped him become a mainstream Republican in a state that’s otherwise racially polarized. It has helped him reach out to white conservative voters who might otherwise have been disinclined to vote for a brown Hindu.

Jindal’s example and Obama’s illustrate the fact that in American public life, being Christian is a form of basic identification. Their churches are for them what a driving license or a ration card is for me: a kind of address proof that confirms the religious whereabouts of their American souls. For Obama, church-going answered a double need: not only did it supply potential voters with this address proof, it offered him, a mixed-race American with white grandparents and a Harvard degree, a way of establishing his credentials as a black man.

In America’s melting pot, immigrants from all over the world are meant to be slow-cooked into an Anglo sameness. An immigrant is meant to learn English and his new country’s laws (for America is a nation of laws) on his way to becoming a citizen of the world’s oldest secular republic. What he isn’t told (because it isn’t formally required of him) is that the liquid in that melting pot, the stock in which Americans are stewed, is subtly Christian. Not just immigrants seeking high office, but ordinary immigrants of all sorts, convert over time to Christianity. In the Chinese American community, some three and a half million strong, the largest and oldest Asian community in the US, Christianity is the largest religion. In the Korean American community, it is the majority religion.

Unlike India — where religious minorities, despite discrimination, thrive demographically — in America, cultural assimilation seems to imply religious assimilation. It is presumptuous to construe Obama’s faith or Jindal’s in political terms, but given the history of American public life, it’s hard not to see an actively professed Christianity as a political calling card. Equally, it’s difficult not to feel disappointed that politicians as prodigiously talented as Barack Obama and Bobby Jindal need to be ostentatiously religious to succeed as public men. Barack Obama has courageously refused to wear his patriotism on his coat lapel (in his refusal to wear an American flag pin), but he has had to wear his Christianity on his sleeve.