June 16th, 2010
12:01 PM ET

'Ragheads' and Republicans: Is Sikhism a sickness?

Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Nikki Haley might have preferred the sex scandal.

After weeks of fending off adultery charges, this conservative Republican hopeful for governor of South Carolina is being forced to discuss her Sikh heritage now that state Sen. Jake Knotts has called her a "raghead."

The epithet raghead–also used by conservative Ann Coulter in a 2006 CPAC speech—has become a generic slur against Arabs, Muslims and other non-white non-Christians, but it was originally employed, in the early 20th century, against turban-wearing Indian immigrants, the vast majority of whom were Sikh men.

According to her campaign, Haley, who is Indian American, was raised a Sikh but converted to Christianity when she was 24. She now attends a Methodist church.

I don’t know what Haley is thinking when she gets down to pray, but it looks like she has felt pressured in recent years to stand up for her Christian faith over her Sikh heritage. According to an extensive review of her past statements on religion by CBN’s David Brody, when Haley was running for the state legislature in 2004 she described herself as attending both Methodist and Sikh services. Her website now emphasizes her “faith in Christ.”

Why would she do that? Because apparently Haley isn’t the only voter in South Carolina who thinks (as Knotts put it), “We need a good Christian to be our governor.”

Some day, Indian Americans will not feel like they need to convert from Hinduism to Christianity (as did Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal) or from Sikhism to Christianity (like Haley) if they want to run for high office. Some day, they will not feel any need to change their names–Jindal's given first name is Piyush; Haley's is Nimrata–in order to get elected.

Unfortunately, that day has not yet come.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Politics • Religious liberty • Sikh

soundoff (53 Responses)
  1. Leah (TXanimal)

    Just ban religion altogether. That would solve about 98% of the world's problems right there.

    June 17, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
  2. Bill

    They only need to change there names when running in those southern conservative states. We all know where the racist underbelly of America lurks. It is in the south, where the poorest states in the USA reside, where the open, loving, and forgiving religion of Christ has morphed into something far more intolerant and sinister. Regardless, I'll never understand why these Indian-Americans waste there time in the GOP, they'll never be accepted for who they really are.

    June 17, 2010 at 7:49 am |
  3. Such BS

    If you want a THEOCRACY, please move to Iran, Iraq, or any other Muslim country. So which brand of Christianity should be the national religion. I want to join so I can run for office. I hope not Baptist, they scream too much. Or Methodist, they don't drink (in public).......

    June 17, 2010 at 7:48 am |
    • Joe

      "If you want a THEOCRACY, please move to Iran, Iraq, or any other Muslim country"

      Or vote Republican

      June 17, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
  4. mmi16

    Religion – the most divisive force of human existance

    June 17, 2010 at 4:08 am |
  5. bob2000

    wow, a whole blog dedicated to the belief in an invisible man...

    June 17, 2010 at 1:29 am |
  6. Rich

    The comment about the names is ridiculous in light of the fact that our President is named Barack. Perhaps the author meant to say that such name changes are necessary only for Republican political aspirants.

    June 17, 2010 at 12:02 am |
    • Joe

      "Perhaps the author meant to say that such name changes are necessary only for Republican political aspirants."

      Exactly. Jindal has gone out of his way to Anglocise himself. The bible belt states are surely not going to elect a furriner, or someone who don't believe in jayzoos.

      June 17, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
  7. Gil T

    I do not wish to second guess Ms Haley's or Senator Knott's faith. Whatever the depth of their faith it is interesting how incidents, such as name-calling, reveal the shallowness of faith in other people. It also reveals how readily my brothers and sisters in the faith that is in Christ Jesus seek out their media, political and church leaders for a religion booster shot. What ever happened to seeking out the guidance of the scriptures?
    The apostles, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, made it clear to the disciples Jesus was not to be enthroned in their hearts along with Moses and the law. The same was made clear to Gentiles as they came into the faith that they could not continue in the worship of idols as was their prior manner of life. There are plenty of Christians in India with whom I interact online who understand this quite well with respect to their previous idol worship, Sikhism, etc.

    June 16, 2010 at 10:44 pm |
    • Sanjay

      Sonia Gandhi, who leads the ruling political party in power in India, is a Catholic, and so are her kids, whom she is grooming for power. India has also had Christian Vice-Presidents, and holders of numerous state offices. Even though Christians are only 2% of India's population, there are far more Christians who've held high public office in India than there are Hindus or Sikhs who've held public office in the USA.

      June 20, 2010 at 9:37 pm |
  8. Jack

    Your article is ridiculous in how it outright doubts the sincerity of both Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley's conversions to Christianity. George W Bush too is a born again Christian but I dont see you harping about it,

    Also, as for the name changes, Jindal named himself Bobby as a 5 year old (guess he was trying to run for office then) and Nikki is actually a very common name in India.

    Also, there are Indian-American elected representatives in the US of the Sikh religion (ie Harry Sidhu, mayor of Anaheim)

    Not a very well researched article in my opinion.....

    June 16, 2010 at 10:41 pm |
    • Joe

      G"eorge W Bush too is a born again Christian but I dont see you harping about it"

      Bush was also a born again moron. But that's another whole topic.

      June 17, 2010 at 2:56 pm |
  9. GW

    I hate to say but Jindal and Haley are getting what they deserve. Why would you be a part of something that requires you to forsake part of who you are or your heritage. Sadly religious belief has become one of the criterion to get elected.

    June 16, 2010 at 6:51 pm |
    • Jeffrey Young, Sr

      GW I'm with you IF (and it's a big if) Gov. Jindal and Mrs. Haley feltl the need to compromise their personal beliefs and ancestory in order to win elective office or curry favor with a particular part of the population it would raise a good deal of concern for me about their ethical grounding.

      June 17, 2010 at 5:30 am |
  10. Lynn

    The bottom line is in this country minorities in positions usually occupied and controlled by the majority for decades make a portion of the majority extremely uncomfortable. This is why half of congress will not govern. Race and ethnicity still matter in the US and not in the most positive way. Just because we elected a man of color to the presidency, does not me we will "allow" him to be president. Unfortunately we can be proud of our culture and ethnicity to the extent it does not intimidate others. I feel like we have slid back to 1960's. What is even more sad is the inability to acknowledge this issue. Racism supersedes the need to solve problems in this country for the good of everyone.

    June 16, 2010 at 6:50 pm |
  11. TammyB

    This all goes to prove that we have come a long way but not ALL the way to judging people just as they are. I really don't think religion should have any bearing on whether elected....that's the perception that if you believe in God that you MUST be honest. We all know that's not true!

    June 16, 2010 at 6:36 pm |
  12. peggy

    What is happening in the Gulf with the oil spill, is those nuts who were praying for the President's death.
    So was that nut case, who called himself a Minister of Religion. Both those people, including Palin, Limburgh, Beck and all those on Fox news, your prayers were answered. Only think, God does not listen to evil peoplel like yu all. He rebuked your evil prayers and now you have an OIL SPILL !!!!

    June 16, 2010 at 5:38 pm |
  13. Andrew

    Lets see, other than 13 jews, every other member of the US senate belong to some christian sect. Atheists/non-religious, which make up 15% of the general populace, have 0 senators. Sikhs, which make up a fairly small percentage, have also no members in the senate.

    In the house of representatives, four are "unspecified", no sikhs, two buddhists, and a muslim. Somehow, I feel religious diversity is a bit, erm, missing in the US government. It's not just the sikhs, it seems to be that if you're not christian you've got a very difficult time being elected. Atheists, as it so happens, are just about entirely unelectable, even less so than sikhs, as studies have shown atheists are apparently the least trusted minority in the US.

    Yay for religious tolerance?

    June 16, 2010 at 5:25 pm |
    • John D

      The Senate's actually probably MORE atheist than the public generally (which is more atheist than IT is willing to admit).

      SAYING you're a Christian isn't the same thing as BEING one.

      June 17, 2010 at 11:08 am |
    • Sanjay

      John D,

      But why should someone have to worry about whether they're Christian or not, just to have a fighting chance at running for public office? In India, there are plenty of Christians who run for office and get elected all the time, even though Christians make up less than 2% of India's population. Some of the highest public offices are held by Christians there. Sonia Gandhi, who is Catholic and foreign born, is the head of India's ruling political party, having picked the current serving Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is a Sikh. She's actually openly combative towards Hindu politicians – I'd like to see someone like Nikki Haley get away with talking down to a Christian majority American population the Sonia Gandhi does in India! Fat Chance!

      June 20, 2010 at 9:45 pm |
  14. Sir Craig

    Some day, Indian Americans will not feel like they need to convert from Hinduism to Christianity (as did Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal) or from Sikhism to Christianity (like Haley) if they want to run for high office.

    What would be even greater is if religious beliefs had no influence at all in our secular government.

    June 16, 2010 at 4:50 pm |
  15. yfic

    Sikhism is not a sickness. Republicanism, on the other hand, increasingly resembles a chronic degenerative mental disorder.

    June 16, 2010 at 4:16 pm |
  16. job

    christianity is an evil and inferior religion. JESUS WAS THE SON OF THE DEVIL

    June 16, 2010 at 1:47 pm |
    • Luke

      Well, technically Jesus was a Jewish Zombie. But whose really taking notes, right?

      June 16, 2010 at 3:31 pm |
    • jonathan

      easy for someone named job to say...maybe that's why you got sifted as wheat....LOL

      June 16, 2010 at 3:56 pm |
    • Mike California

      Jesus did no harm to no one, its just that nutt jobs like to use his name for non Christian behavior.

      June 17, 2010 at 1:43 am |
  17. GSA

    Thanks Reality, I agree about your comment on why this article is written repeatedly and why the tagline that says, "Is Sikhism a sickness", which is just wrong. You're description abouts Sikhs, although brief, is awesome and very accurate Reality, thank you. I'm a 32 year old Sikh, born and raised in Canada and honestly from my relatives in the States and from Sikh friends who visit the US, the hate is very open and tolerated. Anything from name-calling to all-out physical violence towards certain groups and all of it comes from the fact that a small, but very vocal, minority of Americans have no clue about other people, cultures, countries and religions and only go with what is written in the news, truly sad from such a great country. I've read about 7 articles on various sites all with negative bias towards Sikhs, but we are the one group worldwide per capita that gives the most to charites, in Vancouver, Canada the Sikh population broke a long standing record for amount of blood donated, the old record was done in a week, the Sikhs broke the record in an hour, I never once saw an article about this except in the local news, sad really.

    June 16, 2010 at 12:59 pm |
    • Reality

      GSA, the review is from answers.com. For some reason, the moderators have a problem referencing information with webpage addresses and also the use of quotation marks.

      June 16, 2010 at 1:12 pm |
    • jonathan

      it's the conservative culture in America to label people by descriptions or habits.. one thing they cannot stand for some reason is to be called racists.....LOL!!

      June 16, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
  18. Reality

    Why are topics like this one repeated i.e. this topic was discussed a few days ago.

    Again to bring everyone up to speed on Shikism:

    To bring everyone up to speed on Sikhism:

    According to Article I of the "Rehat Maryada" (the Sikh code of conduct and conventions), a Sikh is defined as "any human being who faithfully believes in One Immortal Being; ten Gurus, from Guru Nanak Dev to Sri Guru Gobind Singh; the Sri Guru Granth Sahib; the utterances and teachings of the ten Gurus and the baptism bequeathed by the tenth Guru; and who does not owe allegiance to any other religion".[24] The most common symbol of all Sikhs, because of its simplicity, is uncut hair (including beards for men) and turbans.

    The greater Punjab region is the historic homeland of Sikhism. Most Sikhs are Punjabis and come from the Punjab region, although significant communities exist around the world. Punjabis and the Punjab region's history has been tremendously important in the formation of Sikhism as a religion. One of the most important and very often forgotten beliefs of Sikhism is the non-belief in any caste, group, distinction of any sort within all the human race, which their Gurus (teachers) had left behind. The Punjabi influence is the main reason why Sikhs have, sometimes, been described as an ethnoreligious group outside of India.

    June 16, 2010 at 12:42 pm |
  19. John D

    I'm surprised CNN will even print that slur.

    As for the conversions–like Bill, supra, I wouldn't deign to speculate as to whether they were genuine.
    As for the name changes... Well, I don't have a problem with that.
    That's just a convenient matter of "doing as the Romans do," so to speak.

    That said, I don't object to a person's going by his or her birth name, either.
    To each his own.

    June 16, 2010 at 12:15 pm |
  20. Bill

    "Some day, Indian Americans will not feel like they need to convert from Hinduism to Christianity (as did Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal) or from Sikhism to Christianity (like Haley) if they want to run for high office."
    This wording implies that Jindal and Haley became Christian to run for office - is that what you meant? If so, can you back that up?

    June 16, 2010 at 12:06 pm |
    • Observer

      I'm sure there isn't any hard evidence of the fact and while it's not prudent to make assumptions, the reason why they changed their first names to "Americanized" names could be an indication of why they would change their religions.

      June 16, 2010 at 1:58 pm |
    • Timmy

      Actually, she didn't "change" her name to Nikki. "Nikki" is the dimunitive of "Nimrata" that her parents used to call her at home as a kid.

      June 16, 2010 at 2:57 pm |
    • Phil

      The pressure to conform (euphemism of the word is assimilation) is very strong in the USA. Be like us, is what America tells newcomers. If not you will not get far....Be like us, and we will accept you. Thus, the attack on anyone non christian.....In America everyone is equal..well, unless you are not like us. Attack on Nikki Haley's Sikh religion is this example...

      June 16, 2010 at 11:01 pm |
    • Joe

      Yes I'm sure the rednecks in South Carolina would vote for a Hindu or a Sihk. There is no reason whatsoever to suspect that they changed their "faith" for any politcal motivations.

      June 17, 2010 at 2:51 pm |
    • Omar

      Bill: In the case of Haley, the writer did provide evidence. As of 2004, she was still making her association to Sikhism known. In 2010, she doesn't mention it, but she does mention her belief in Christ. But if you're suggesting that non-Christians don't feel tremendous pressure to "convert" to make themselves viable political candidates, you're wrong.

      June 17, 2010 at 8:59 pm |
    • Sanjay


      I have a cousin named Nimrata, and we don't call her Nikki. We call her Nimmi. The name Nikki may be some anglicized nickname that she adopted or embraced in order to feel more acceptable in South Carolina. My father's name is Shyam, and he's gone by the name 'Sam' sometimes. But really it's just an anglicization, as there's no real correlation between the 2 names. Likewise, you'll see many Chinese who adopt European first names in order to get by in Western society, because they feel their Chinese names are too difficult for Westerners to pronounce.

      June 20, 2010 at 9:07 pm |
    • Ram

      I don't think American Christian-right is ready (yet) for Hindus to breach the power structure. But it will happen, because Hindus are relentless, and also because of the great American spirit of inclusiveness. The Christian right has two choices embrace it, or become irrelevant.

      June 20, 2010 at 11:57 pm |
    • Vivek Golikeri

      I would never convert to Christianity, not even for all the money or power in the world. I am who I am, and if someone does not want me as myself, well I am too good for them.

      October 14, 2010 at 8:31 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.