Nikki Haley easily captured the Republican nomination for South Carolina governor on June 22 after facing weeks of personal attacks, including questions about her conversion to Christianity.
Several Baptists in the state joined other conservatives in stirring up controversy about the religious faith of Haley, who grew up Sikh but converted as an adult to Christianity and now attends a Methodist church.
Controversy erupted earlier in June when Republican state senator Jake Knotts used a religious slur to attack Haley and President Barack Obama. Knotts, who is reportedly a Southern Baptist, attacked Haley for being “a f—ing raghead.”
“We got a raghead in Washington; we don’t need one in South Carolina,” Knotts added. “She’s a raghead that’s ashamed of her religion trying to hide it behind being Methodist for political reasons.”
The term “raghead” is a racist and religious slur used against Muslims, Sikhs and others who traditionally wear turbans.
Although Knotts apologized for using “an unintended slur,” he reiterated his questioning of the religious faiths of Haley and Obama.
“I still believe Ms. Haley is pretending to be someone she is not, much as Obama did,” Knotts explained in his apology statement.
Knotts defended his criticism about Haley’s religion by declaring, “We’re at war over there.” However, the U.S. is not at war with India, from which Haley’s parents, who still practice Sikhism, emigrated.
Other Baptists joined in questioning Haley’s faith, although in milder terms.
Tony Beam, an interim pastor at Mount Creek Baptist Church in Greenville, raised questions about Haley’s faith on his radio program.
“Is Nikki Haley being honest about her faith?” Beam asked as he invited his listeners to call in with their assessments of her conversion.
“People want to know if she is being completely forthright about it,” Beam stated in response to his radio discussion. “Once you commit to Christianity, it excludes other religions. I am not saying she is not who she says she is, but I do know those questions are being raised.”
Beam, who did not respond to an EthicsDaily.com request for comment, is also vice president for student services and Christian worldview at North Greenville University, which is affiliated with the South Carolina Baptist Convention. Beam is a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Beam endorsed Haley’s main primary opponent, Gresham Barrett. Although Barrett now attends a nondenominational church, he was raised Southern Baptist. In the wake of the controversy about Haley’s religion, his campaign featured ads declaring him to be a “Christian family man who won’t embarrass us.”
Additionally, a co-chairman of Barrett’s campaign sent out an email saying that Haley “can’t seem to make up her mind about her faith” and suggested she was lying about her faith.
“It’s not my place to question her faith, but I do question her honesty,” the campaign advisor added. “If anyone finds the truth, please let me know.”
Included in the email was a report from “The Brody File,” a blog run by David Brody of Pat Robertson’s CBN News. Brody noted that Haley’s website underwent a change to make her religious content more explicitly Christian. Instead of merely mentioning the “Almighty God,” it now includes multiple references to “Christ.” Brody also questions Haley’s campaign for now downplaying her Sikh background compared to earlier campaigns.
In addition to raising questions about Haley’s religion and using a racist slur, Knotts argued that there should be a religious test for office.
“We need a good Christian to be our governor,” Knotts argued. “She’s hiding her religion. She ought to be proud of it. I’m proud of my God.”
Knotts also pressed journalists to question Haley’s religious claims.
“Have you ever asked her if she believes in Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior, and that he died on the cross for her sins?” Knotts asked a local reporter. “Have you ever asked her that?”
On the other side of the nation, another Republican Southern Baptist seemed to be providing the answer to the questions of Knotts, Beam and others.
Sharron Angle, the Republican U.S. Senate nominee in Nevada to challenge Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, has also faced religious questions and attacks. Although Angle is a Southern Baptist, she has been criticized for her close relationship with Scientologists and even been accused of being a Scientologist. Angle argued in response that such religious questions should be left out of political campaigns.
“What we’re seeing here is a very slippery slope,” Angle argued recently. “Whenever religion becomes the focal point – we saw this during John F. Kennedy’s race and also, to some degree, in Mitt Romney’s race – whenever this becomes the focus, we Americans should be very, very concerned. We have a First Amendment that guarantees us all the right to worship as we please. We as Americans should, even if we don’t agree, should defend their right to have that right. It shouldn’t come into play in any political arena.”
Angle’s comment complements South Carolina’s own political precedents on religion in campaigns.
Although the South Carolina Constitution dictates that public officials must acknowledge the existence of a “supreme being,” the state Supreme Court ruled over a decade ago that such a demand violated the U.S. Constitution.
Additionally, South Carolinian leader Charles Pinckney, a delegate to the U.S. Constitutional Convention, proposed the language found in Article VI of the U.S. Constitution: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
However, as Haley prepares to face Democrat Vincent Sheheen, the first Catholic nominated for governor in South Carolina, religious issues and questions seem likely to continue to surface in the campaign.
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.