Becoming Bobby Jindal

OmOne of the nastiest campaign tricks in recent memory was the Louisiana Democratic Party’s attempt to derail the candidacy of Roman Catholic Bobby Jindal by quoting — out of context — statements he’d written about Protestantism. The thing I remember about the attacks is that Jindal seemed surprisingly theologically literate for a politician. Jindal explained his adult conversion from Hinduism in the New Oxford Review and the Democratic Party quoted some of it to give the impression that Jindal was a bigot. I know it’s Louisiana and all, but that’s cold.

Robert Travis Scott, writing in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, has a really interesting and well-researched story on Jindal’s religious conversion. It also has a really weird angle, although I think it works: what Jindal’s Hindu relatives in India think of his conversion. The gist of the piece is that Jindal’s conversion was aided by the open-mindedness of Hinduism combined with the lack of a significant Hindu presence in his home state of Louisiana:

His relatives’ perspective reflects a tolerant side of a religion that for thousands of years has survived philosophical transformations, rebellious counter-religions and numerous sects, only to claim them all in time as part of the infinitely flexible cosmos of Hindu faith.

“If you find and see that you get more peace of mind, more solace, in that religion, then why not change religion?” said Jindal’s uncle Subhash Gupta, a practicing Hindu. “In India, many people change to the Christian religion. And I can understand that some people maybe find Christian religion more satisfying to their needs.”

One of the religious aspects that Scott gets is that Hinduism is sort of an umbrella for differing belief systems. But I’m not sure that he accurately portrays the variety contained within Hinduism. India is officially secular but overwhelmingly Hindu. For the most part religious minorities are tolerated by Hindus. However, Hindu nationalists — who control some of the regions of India — are violently opposed to religious conversion and persecute Muslims and Christians. Not all Hindus are equally tolerant, in other words. But for a feature in a mainstream newspaper, Scott does a great job of introducing readers to some of what distinguishes Hinduism:
Jindal

Jindal’s parents, Amar and Raj Jindal, are practicing Hindus and emphasize that they are monotheists. Hindus say they believe in one God, who also takes the form of a trinity.

In addition, Hinduism recognizes thousands, and by some counts millions, of deities who are considered incarnations, or avatars, of the one God, sent to Earth to right some wrong.

Few Hindus worship Jesus Christ, but they might easily accept the idea that he was an avatar. Or they might draw a parallel between their worship of various Hindu deities and the prayers that Catholics say to saints as couriers to God.

Scott describes various pieties, including choosing deities as personal guides to understanding spiritual truths and the reading of Vedas. Then he questions whether the variety of scripture in Hinduism and the lack of systematic theology influenced Jindal’s departure from Hinduism. Further, Scott suggests, Jindal may have never left Hinduism if it were practiced more widely in Baton Rouge:

Like his parents, Bobby Jindal grew up in a world in which Hindu religion was presented as a meaningful but broad-minded system of faith. But unlike them, Jindal did not grow up in a world where Hindu temples abound, where the home of almost every neighbor contains a small shrine and where typical conversations about weddings, food and social graces are laced with the vocabulary of the Hindu belief system.

The article limits its scope to how Hindus in India feel about Jindal’s conversion. It might have been interesting to have gotten more perspective from Jindal or other converts to Christianity — particularly to provide a bit more balance to Scott’s suggestions. Still, a very interesting article and much more substantive about Hinduism than we normally see.

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  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog.html Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Nice blog post Mollie, it is indeed nice to see that journalistic understanding of this faith/umbrella term is becoming more nuanced. Let’s hope this trend continues.

    As for the smear on Jindal, while it is nasty, I’m not sure it is “one of the nastiest campaign tricks in recent memory”. There have been some pretty nasty campaign tricks perpetrated in the last ten years. Like the “John McCain had a black child out of wed-lock” smear perpetrated by Bush supporters eight years ago.

  • Jerry

    This is the Democratic side of the Mormon wars in the Republican party. It’s a sad illustration of how often both parties worship an idol called power and engage in the modern equivalent of a sacrifice. In modern times it’s not a blood sacrifice of an enemy but an attempt to destroy the enemy’s honor and reputation, but the underlying pattern is the same none-the-less.

  • http:///gashwingomes.blogspot.com Gashwin

    I am an adult convert from Hinduism myself (though, I grew up in India and was baptized there). I was hoping that y’all would cover this story. I have some comments on my blog: basically, that the story presents this sweet picture of Hinduism that is music to relativistic Western ears and completely ignores the anti-Christian sentiment in some parts of India, and the whole reality of caste.

    The description of middle-class Hindu attitudes towards religious beliefs hews closely to my own experience, however.

  • Jacques

    Jindal himself has written about his conversion in America. Some excerpt can be found at http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=10342. What he says about his parents’ reactions does not seem to jibe with the story of the New Orleans Times-Picayune as summarized by Mollie:

    “My parents went through different phases of anger and disappointment. They blamed themselves for being bad parents, blamed me for being a bad son and blamed evangelists for spreading dissension. There were heated discussions, many of them invoking family loyalty and national identity. My parents have never truly accepted my conversion and still see my faith as a negative that overshadows my accomplishments. They were hurt and felt I was rejecting them by accepting Christianity. I long for the day when my parents understand, respect and possibly accept my faith. For now, I am satisfied that they accept me…”

  • Palladio

    Jerry,

    Please tell me, us, what the Mormon wars are? Waged by or against them? I haven’t a clue.

  • Christopher W. Chase

    That was indeed an interesting and productive article. Thanks for highlighting it. Having said that, I do think a few corrections are in order for journalists covering Hinduism. First of all, it would be incorrect to say that there is a lack of systematic theology in Hinduism. In fact, the range of systematic theologies and theologians is quite extensive, from the Advaita Vedanta of Shankara, to the personalist Bhakti henotheism of Ramanuja, and theology of the Spirit promulgated by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the yogic theology of Patanjali, and the mystical spiritual evolution of Aurobindo. The alleged lack of “systematic theology” simply has no basis in historical fact. What I think journalists may be trying to get at is my next point…

    When covering traditions such as Judaism and Hinduism, journalists need to take off their Protestantist spectacles to see that these are not primarily belief-centered traditions (orthodoxy), but ritual-centered traditions (orthopraxis). This is why people refer to “practicing” or “non-practicing” Catholics, Hindus or Jews and not Protestants in the same way. This makes it look like there is no systematic theology, but it simply indicates that systematic theologies occupy a different space in that religious tradition. Roman Catholicism has extensive systematic theology, but being a good Catholic has much more to do with participating faithfully in the sacraments of the Church than studying the specifics of transubstantiation.

    Third, while attention to caste in India and social stigmas is important for journalistic coverage of fundamentalism, writers will need to point out that socially elite Hindu theologians/persons are more likely to talk about monotheism, while middle and lower-class ordinary quotidian everyday Hindus are quite happily polytheistic or henotheistic. In this way Hinduism is similar to 19th century ethnic Catholicism and saint veneration in the United States before Vatican reforms.

    With these things in mind, I must say that Robert T. Scott wrote a fantastic article, all things considered, and I’m sure that this was helpful for many regular readers of that paper who likely have little to no experience of Hinduism.

  • Jerry

    Jerry,

    Please tell me, us, what the Mormon wars are? Waged by or against them? I haven’t a clue.

    I can’t believe you’ve not seen all the discussion about whether or not Mormonism is a Christian faith or a cult and the possible impact of Romney’s faith on the Republican race. You might not apply the word war to that, but it sure seems like a war of words to me.

  • Palladio

    Well, sort of, but where? I mean, I think Romney has been treated very gently by the press, and by pundits at the National Review and per diem hire at TNYT, and have no idea about t.v., which I don’t watch.

    I think the influence of his faith is plain, however: once a front-runner, he is losing, much to the chagrin, apparently, of LDS, who post and post at the merest mention of his name.

    What seems to me to be happening is that Christians are, for the first time, looking into LDS to see, as Americans are wont, for themselves. I take it they don’t like what they see, and are unwilling to be told Mormons are Christians when evidence is there for them to decide for themselves. (Of course, how Romney has handled himself and his campaign also influence guts, which is what Americans seem to vote with.)

    I wasn’t taking issue, at all events, with your facts or words, just wondering if there was mainstream coverage I was missing, since this is a race I’ve taken some interest in.

  • Christopher W. Chase

    Palladio wrote:

    What seems to me to be happening is that Christians are, for the first time, looking into LDS to see, as Americans are wont, for themselves. I take it they don’t like what they see, and are unwilling to be told Mormons are Christians when evidence is there for them to decide for themselves

    This would be interesting, if it were true. Evangelical outreach of young children and others has included anti-LDS tracts and propaganda for over a century. Although no comprehensive scholarly study of anti-Mormonism literature currently exists, there is certainly sufficient evidence for massive cultural ‘inoculation’ efforts on the part of evangelicals at least well into the 1890′s. The real untold story (IMHO) is the extensive history of anti-Mormon outreach in the evangelical community, and its confluence with the general cultural fears about Mormonism that have found their way into political cartoons and commentary even as the LDS Church has mainstreamed itself into American life.

    There has been no comparative massive effort with regard to traditions such as Hinduism, even though some American missionary publications from the 1880′s had a similar function. If there had been such a cultural tradition, perhaps the Louisiana Democratic Party could have smeared Jindal about his religious/family background successfully the way that some in the media have tried to do with Senator Obama’s candidacy.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Palladio,

    If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been forced to delete several of your last comments on my posts. If this blog were called “GetCatholicismOrGetOutofHere” they *might* be on topic.

    We actually discuss JOURNALISM here. Mainstream media coverage of religious issues.

    You can’t discuss politics here. Or doctrinal disputes. Take it elsewhere.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Palladio,

    Your last comment was barely coherent and yet still managed to be oddly rude. I have deleted it.

    You are welcome to contribute thoughtful and on-topic commentary to any of my posts.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Palladio,

    I will continue to delete your inappropriate comments, as I just did again! But you are welcome to keep trying to adhere to the policies of our site.

    Discussion of how the mainstream media treat religious issues is encouraged. Doctrinal battles or rudeness to me — not so much.


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