Faith

Why I Don't Believe In Nikki Haley's 'Conversion'

Nikki Haley Wins GOP Runoff For South Carolina Gov. Candidate

hide captionNikki Haley speaks to supporters Tuesday at an election party after winning the South Carolina GOP gubernatorial nomination.

Chris Keane/Getty Images

You can't be Indian in the U.S. this week and not have people ask you the million dollar question - "What do you think of Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley changing their names and converting?"

First, the name thing.

Dear Indian parents, with all due respect, have care for your child when you name it in the U.S.

Exhibit A: Piyush, which is just an unfortunate name to give a child in this country. Up there with Shital and Ashit, both of which are perfectly good names in India but terrible here. It would have been one thing if Jindal grew up on, say, the Osho ashram in Oregon. But the man grew up in Louisiana, circa 70s and 80s, where I'm guessing India and all things Indian were very far away, at best. Can you blame him for going with Bobby?

Who the hell wants to go through life with a name that starts with Pee?

As for Ms. Haley, after much back-and-forthing on Facebook, I do finally believe that Nikki is a common Punjabi name for a girl. And it certainly isn't up there with going from Piyush to Bobby.

Now. The Christian bit.

Honestly? I’m not buying.  

Before I go any further, I should state unequivocally that I think it's ridiculous for her to prove her bona fides over and over (then again, I didn't care that Mitt Romney was Mormon either, and I don't think how you find God is anyone's beeswax, period - but that's a whole other post). Still, I can't help thinking - lie down with dogs, wake up with fleas.

People, it's South Carolina, not New York City. Based on everything I've ever read or heard, being Christian is more or less the price of entry to political candidacy in that part of the country and if you want to go for it, that's your choice. But by the same yardstick, if you do that, you don't then get to turn around and wonder why the people who created the system constantly question what may seem to them to be a conversion of convenience. You also don't get to complain if that same mindset suggests that your conversion isn't good enough for them.

It's a terrible analogy, but frankly, it's a bit like the first free black person realizing that no matter what, his money wasn't good enough at some white stores. And that isn't a knock purely on American society. I'd say it's pretty human and universal. In general, systems are created to make it hard for outsiders - however you define "outsider." Not the other way around. And again, it's S.O.U.T.H. C.A.R.O.L.I.N.A! Some of those folks really do take their religion dead serious, and your finding Jesus is something they're going to question if they find it a leap that's also politically expedient.

I don't know when Ms. Haley became a Christian, I don't remember registering that in all the coverage. But perhaps it's hard for serious church-goers not to wonder about the sincerity of someone who professes to being a Christian, but did so late in life when it could potentially be of value for ambitions of public office. Because she wasn't so Christian that she walked away entirely from the Sikhism she grew up with - per the New York Times story on her recently - she did have a Sikh wedding in addition to a church wedding.

And that's the thing - I think perhaps people would be less inclined to question if she just came right out and said she was in an interfaith marriage. In fact, that would be the really new thing in South Carolina, and people might actually respect that. But that doesn't seem to be the case. Give people reason to wonder and they will. Answer people upfront and they stop asking. And I say this because I saw many things said about Bobby Jindal when he was running, but no one seemed to question his conversion to Catholicism for one big reason - he seems to have done it when he was a teenager and much too young to figure it into a political calculus. And it really seems to be an overarching part of his life, complete with being familiar with the cry room on Sundays because he had young kids and they were making noise in church.

I do think it's ridiculous that Haley has to prove who she is over and over. That she has to prove she didn't cheat is beyond ridiculous. Her being called a raghead is utterly disgusting.

But I'm not surprised in the least that Haley and Jindal are more palatable for some voters with less ethnic names and more familiar religious leanings. They're both Southerners, born and raised. But for the people for whom they don't feel or look right, no amount of name or religion changing will make a difference.

Sohini Baliga is an independent writer from Vienna, Virginia

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