NEVADA, Iowa — Republican voters eager to learn more about Vivek Ramaswamy are especially curious about one thing: his religion.
“What is your opinion of Jesus Christ?” an Iowan asked Ramaswamy at a campaign stop in Nevada on Saturday. When Ramaswamy explained that in his Hindu faith, Jesus is “a” son of God and not “the” son of God, the potential caucusgoer followed up with another question about “the fact that the only way to heaven is Jesus Christ.”
It’s a common occurrence as Ramaswamy hits the trail in Iowa. It was the second time he had been questioned about his faith that day and the sixth time in his last two visits to the state. It’s not just Iowa, either. In New Hampshire over Labor Day weekend, a voter asked about Ramaswamy’s religion, prompting an answer about the importance of religious liberty in the U.S.: “I’m Hindu, and I’m proud of that. I stand for that without apology. I think I’m going to be able to be more ardent as a defender of religious liberty.”
Ramaswamy, a first-time candidate, drew new attention after his debate performance last month — against a demographic backdrop that has been an obstacle for other Republican presidential hopefuls.
About two-thirds of Republicans in the 2016 Iowa caucuses identified as evangelical or born-again Christians, according to NBC News’ exit poll. And the evangelical constituency tends to reward Republican candidates who reflect their religious values, including past caucus winners like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in 2016 and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008. Sandwiched in between: 2012 winner Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania and practicing Catholic — who won praise from influential Republican evangelicals as “an evangelical at heart” who spoke to their values.
On Aug. 31, a day packed with campaign stops throughout Iowa, Ramaswamy was quizzed about his relationship with God so many times that by the end of the day, he was weaving Bible stories into his campaign speech unprompted.
“Remember the Book of Exodus,” Ramaswamy told a crowd of voters in Boone. “The Israelites escaped the pharaoh; they’re lost in the desert,” he continued, analogizing the story to the feeling of being lost that he says many Americans feel today.
It’s a biblical reference Ramaswamy typically makes when he is asked about religion, but after a day of repeated questions about his Hindu faith, he was practically flexing his familiarity with the Bible.
Indeed, Ramaswamy is quick to tell Iowans about his familiarity with the Bible when he is asked, as well as the fact that he attended a Catholic high school.
“I’ve actually read the Bible much more closely than many of, probably most of, my Christian friends,” Ramaswamy said at a campaign stop Saturday, adding: “I got a religion award back when I was at St. X High School in Cincinnati.”
Ramaswamy insists his Hindu faith won’t be a hurdle for his campaign in Iowa. “I’m a person of faith. Evangelical Christians across the state are also people of faith,” he told NBC News in July. “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.”
But he acknowledged he is asking evangelical voters for a degree of additional trust.
“I understand that requires some of you to make a bit of a leap to vote for somebody who isn’t nominally Christian,” Ramaswamy said Saturday. “But I promise you it’s a lot smaller of a leap than it seems.”
And this week, Ramaswamy expanded more, telling NBC News: “I think it’s legitimate to gain comfort with somebody who is of a different faith — I am a Hindu — occupying that office. But we share the same values in common. I think that is true. And because it’s true, I think that people will come to understand that for the commander-in-chief, that’s what matters.”
Though he’s regularly quoting the Bible and speaking about Christianity, Ramaswamy has also said he’s not pandering to voters — and he seemed to suggest that one rival, fellow Indian American Nikki Haley, has been.
“An easy thing for me to do being a politician to follow this track is shorten my name, profess to be a Christian and then run,” Ramaswamy said Sunday at a town hall in Hollis, New Hampshire. “Let’s be honest — it happens. Make Vivek ‘Vikki’ or whatever.”
Ramaswamy’s campaign has previously referred to Haley by her given first name, Nimarata, though she has gone by Nikki, her given middle name, her whole life. Haley converted to Christianity when she got married in the 1990s.
Haley’s campaign declined to respond to Ramaswamy’s comment.
Leaders in Iowa’s evangelical community acknowledge Ramaswamy’s Hindu faith is an obstacle to his campaign in Iowa, though they say it’s not an insurmountable one.
“There’s no doubt it’s probably another hurdle for him to win the Iowa caucuses to gain people’s support,” said Bob Vander Plaats, the president and CEO of the Family Leader Foundation.
Vander Plaats has been a kingmaker in recent Iowa Republican caucuses, having worked for the winning Huckabee campaign in 2008 and having endorsed Santorum’s and Cruz’s victorious bids in the next two election cycles. While he acknowledges Ramaswamy’s Hindu faith as a challenge, Vander Plaats said faith won’t be the only factor Iowans use to form their allegiances.
“I don’t think Iowans are going to have a litmus test with Vivek Ramaswamy,” Vander Plaats said. “It’s not like it’s a complete dealbreaker.”
Republican political strategist Dave Kochel, an Iowa caucus veteran who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, also thinks Ramaswamy’s faith could stunt his campaign in Iowa. He remembers watching how Romney’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affected his campaign. Romney came in second in the 2008 and 2012 Iowa caucuses.
“Senator Romney’s Mormonism was an issue in northwest Iowa and kind of held down turnout there even in the general election,” Kochel said.
Religious differences with some voters aside, religion and God are big parts of Ramaswamy’s campaign.
Ramaswamy has a series of “10 truths” that form the backbone of his stump speech and some of the written material distributed at those events. The first of those truths: “God is real.”
On the Sunday before Labor Day, Ramaswamy attended and spoke at a morning service at Village Bible Church in Amherst, New Hampshire.
He told NBC News afterward that he told congregants he feels God puts us on this Earth for a reason and that his family is following that sense of purpose to “restore a sense of purpose in this country.”
At a town hall in Hollis, New Hampshire, he told voters: “What I’ve found is that all of us — Jewish, Hindu, evangelical, Christian, Catholic — we’re not that different in wanting people in office who are forthright, who are honest.”