Bristol Smith, a manager at a McDonald’s in Maryville, Tenn., came across Vivek Ramaswamy’s name this spring, shortly after Mr. Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur, announced he was running for president. Mr. Smith was intrigued. He liked the way Mr. Ramaswamy “stands up against the wokeness” and his plan to send the military to the southern border to combat drug cartels. He respected Mr. Ramaswamy’s acumen as a businessman worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Then Mr. Smith, 25, searched for Mr. Ramaswamy’s faith. Mr. Smith is an evangelical Christian who recently started a small church that meets at his parents’ house.
“I looked up his religion and saw he’s Hindu,” he recalled. “I was going to vote for him until that came up.” What the country needs is to be “put back under God,” as Mr. Smith sees it, and he doesn’t want to take a chance on someone who is not a Christian.
At that point, he said, “I got back on President Trump’s train.”
Mr. Ramaswamy, 37, was raised by Indian immigrants and is a practicing Hindu. That poses a dilemma for some of the conservative Christian voters who make up a significant share of the Republican primary electorate and are accustomed to evaluating candidates not just on their policy proposals but also on their biographies and personal beliefs, including religious faith.
For many conservative voters, a candidate’s faith is a signifier of his or her values, lifestyle, loyalties and priorities as a leader. It’s the Sunday-morning version of the classic question of which candidate you would most enjoy having a beer with: Who would fit in at your church?
“It’s another hurdle people need to cross to go to him,” Bob Vander Plaats, an influential evangelical leader in Iowa, said of Mr. Ramaswamy.
Mr. Ramaswamy stood for a prayer at the Veterans Freedom Center during a morning pancake breakfast in Dubuque, Iowa.Credit…Jordan Gale for The New York Times
Mr. Vander Plaats recently had Mr. Ramaswamy’s family over for Sunday supper at his house, where the meal opened with a prayer and the reading of a passage from the Bible. He came away impressed with Mr. Ramaswamy and said that his message aligned with the priorities of many evangelical voters. He mentioned Mr. Ramaswamy’s list of 10 core “truths,” the first of which is: “God is real.” (The second: “There are two genders.”)
“I think he’s really connecting with the audiences in Iowa,” said Mr. Vander Plaats, who has not endorsed a candidate. “He welcomes the deeper questions.” Mr. Ramaswamy is polling under 5 percent in most recent national polls.
Mr. Ramaswamy’s approach has been to confront the issue directly and argue that he has more in common with observant Christians than they might think.
“I’m not Christian. I was not raised in a Christian household,” he told Mr. Vander Plaats in June in front of a small audience at the headquarters of his organization, the Family Leader. “But we do share the same Christian values that this nation was founded on.”
In an interview in late June, after leaving a meeting with a few dozen pastors in New Hampshire, Mr. Ramaswamy said his faith taught him that Jesus was “a son of God, absolutely.” (That “a” is a sharp distinction from the central Christian belief that Jesus is the son of God. Hinduism is a fluid and expansive tradition, and many believers embrace scores of deities, with some seeing Jesus as one teacher or god.)
Although he is not a Christian, Mr. Ramaswamy pointed out, he speaks openly about why belief in God matters and why rising secularism in America is bad for the country, and about values like marital fidelity, duty, religious liberty and self-sacrifice.
“I don’t have a quick pitch to say, ‘No, no, that doesn’t matter,’” he said of the theological differences between Hinduism and Christianity. “It’s that I understand exactly why that would matter to you.”
At campaign stops, Mr. Ramaswamy refers to Bible stories, including the crucifixion of Jesus, and quotes Thomas Aquinas. He frequently mentions his experience attending a “Christian school” in Cincinnati (St. Xavier High School, a Catholic school). And he contrasts “religions like ours,” which have stood the test of time, with the competing worldviews of “wokeism, climatism, transgenderism, gender ideology, Covidism,” as he put it to an audience in New Hampshire.
Mr. Ramaswamy’s campaign has disseminated clips of an Iowa pastor comparing him to the biblical figure of King David, and of his lengthy answer to a New Hampshire man who asked about his “spiritual beliefs” at a town hall. In Iowa, a woman pressed her hand to Mr. Ramaswamy’s chest and blessed him in the name of Jesus Christ.
“Amen,” Mr. Ramaswamy said as she concluded her prayer.
If Mr. Ramaswamy comes to have a chance with evangelical primary voters in the crowded Republican field, it will be thanks in part to forces beyond his campaign. Many conservative voters for whom a shared faith might have once been a litmus test now say they are looking not for a “pastor-in-chief” but for someone who shares their political and cultural goals, and who will fight on their behalf.
“Theology matters, but the culture has changed. America has changed,” said David Brody, the chief political analyst for the Christian Broadcasting Network, who has interviewed Mr. Ramaswamy. The biggest objective now, Mr. Brody said, is combating “cultural Marxism” and correcting the course of “a country gone haywire.”
He contrasted evangelical priorities in next year’s Iowa caucuses with those in 2008 and 2012, when Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum won on the strength of their conservative Christian bona fides.
“The lazy narrative that he’s Hindu so he can’t appeal to evangelicals, I don’t buy it at all,” Mr. Brody said.
In recent years, theological lines have blurred as political divides have hardened. Few churches split these days over old debates like the exact timing of the end times or the role of free will in salvation. About half of American Protestants now say they prefer to attend a church with people who share their political views, according to polling from Lifeway Research.
Mr. Ramaswamy’s emphasis on his belief in one God has a long history for Hindus in the United States, especially those speaking to white Christian audiences, said Michael Altman, a professor of religious studies at the University of Alabama.
Swami Vivekananda, who represented Hinduism at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893, took pains to depict his faith as monotheistic, in contrast to the stereotypes of its followers as “heathen” polytheists. Although the faith has many deities, they are generally subordinate to one ultimate “reality.” Many Hindus and scholars say its theology is too complex to be described as either wholly monotheistic or wholly polytheistic.
“The polytheism hurdle is the first thing that has to be addressed” for many American Christian audiences, Mr. Altman said. He sees Mr. Ramaswamy’s pitch against “wokeism” as a way to counter stereotypes associating Hinduism with hippies, yoga and vegetarianism.
Some evangelical observers say it was former President Donald J. Trump who opened up a new lane for Republican candidates who were not necessarily people that voters would expect to sit next to in church on Sunday morning. Many evangelical voters embraced the crude, thrice-married casino magnate not because he was one of them but because they believed he would fight in the public square on their behalf.
Most Indian Americans, including Hindus, are Democrats. But some conservatives see an opening with a population that prioritizes family life, marriage and education. As president, Mr. Trump hosted Diwali celebrations at the White House, and in April the Republican National Committee announced a new Republican Hindu and Indian American Coalition. Prime minister Narendra Modi of India is a popular figure among a rising cohort of right-wing Indian Americans, attracting a crowd of 50,000 when he appeared with Mr. Trump in Houston in 2019. Mr. Ramaswamy spoke last year at a gala organized by the right-wing U.S. group HinduPACT, which is aligned with Mr. Modi’s style of nationalism.
Nikki Haley, another Indian American contender in the 2024 primary, has similarly emphasized her background as the daughter of immigrants. But although Ms. Haley was raised Sikh, she converted to Christianity and now attends a large Methodist church in South Carolina. Bobby Jindal, a Louisiana Republican who ran for president in 2016, was raised Hindu but has described himself as an “evangelical Catholic.”
Mr. Ramaswamy attends the same temple in Dayton, Ohio, that he did as a child and that his parents still do.
One of the temple’s priests officiated his wedding in New York City in 2015. He and his wife and their two young sons attend temple on holidays and to mark special occasions, including the younger son’s first birthday in early July, his wife, Dr. Apoorva Ramaswamy, said.
Dr. Ramaswamy, who has publicly discussed the family’s faith on the campaign trail, said there were more similarities among committed believers across traditions than between serious and nominal adherents within the same faith.
“The fact that we are believers, that we have that sense of humility, that we raise our children with true respect and fear and love of God — that’s so much more unifying than the name of the God people pray to,” Dr. Ramaswamy said.
The question for her husband’s campaign is whether enough Christian voters will agree.
Ken Bosse, the pastor of New Life Church in Raymond, N.H., described himself as “an extreme follower of Jesus Christ” who would prefer to have a Christian in the White House, all things considered. But he would be open to the right candidate who is not a Christian, noting that “we have had some professing Christians in that position who didn’t follow biblical principles.”
Mr. Bosse invited Mr. Ramaswamy to deliver a brief speech at his church on a Sunday morning in April. He liked the candidate’s emphasis on reclaiming a positive American identity, he said, and on his story as a self-made millionaire who is the child of immigrants.
At the moment, however, Mr. Bosse is leaning toward supporting Mr. Trump.