NEVADA, Iowa – Republican voters eager to learn more about Vivek Ramaswamy are particularly curious about one thing: his religion.
“What is your opinion of Jesus Christ?” he asked Ramaswamy an Iowan during 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 caucus attendee followed with another question about “the fact that the only way to heaven is Jesus Christ.”
It’s a common occurrence when Ramaswamy hits the road 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 constituent asked about Ramaswamy’s religion, prompting a response about the importance of religious freedom in the United States: “I’m Hindu and I’m proud of it. I support him without apology. I think I can be more ardent as a defender of religious freedom.”
Ramaswamy, a first-time candidate, attracted new attention after his debate last month, amid demographics that posed a hurdle for other Republican presidential candidates.
According to the NBC News exit poll, about two-thirds of Republicans in the 2016 Iowa caucuses identified as evangelical or born-again Christians. 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. In between: 2012 winner Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania and a practicing Catholic – who received praise from influential Republican evangelicals as “an evangelical at heart” who spoke to their values.
On Aug. 31, a day full of campaign stops across Iowa, Ramaswamy was asked so many times about his relationship with God that by the end of the day, he was weaving Biblical stories into his campaign speech unprompted.
“Remember the Book of Exodus,” Ramaswamy told a crowd of voters in Boone. “The Israelites escaped from Pharaoh; they got lost in the desert,” he continued, likening the story to the feeling of loss he says many Americans feel today.
It’s a biblical reference that Ramaswamy typically makes when asked about religion, but after a day of repeated questions about his Hindu faith, he was basically showing off his familiarity with the Bible.
Indeed, Ramaswamy is quick to tell Iowans about his familiarity with the Bible when asked, as well as the fact that he attended a Catholic high school.
“I actually read the Bible much more carefully than many, probably most, of my Christian friends,” Ramaswamy said during a campaign stop Saturday, adding, “I received an award for religion when I was at St. High School in Cincinnati.”
Ramaswamy insists his Hindu faith will not be an obstacle to his campaign in Iowa. “I am a person of faith. Evangelical Christians across the state are also people of faith,” he told NBC News in July. “We found commonalities in our need to defend religious freedom, to defend faith and patriotism, and to unapologetically argue that we are one nation under God.”
But he acknowledged that he is asking evangelical voters for a certain degree of additional trust.
“I understand that this requires some of you to take a leap to vote for someone who is not nominally Christian,” Ramaswamy said Saturday. “But I promise you the jump is a lot smaller than it seems.”
And this week, Ramaswamy expanded further, telling NBC News: “I think it’s legitimate to find comfort with someone who is of a different faith — I’m a Hindu — occupying that office. But we share the same values in common. I believe that’s true. And because that’s true, I think people will understand that this is what matters to the commander in chief.”
Although he regularly quotes the Bible and talks about Christianity, Ramaswamy also said he is not pandering to voters – and appeared to suggest that a rival, fellow Indian American Nikki Haley, was.
“An easy thing to do as a politician to go this route is to shorten my name, profess to be a Christian and then run for office,” 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 name, Nimarata, although throughout her life she has been Nikki, her middle name. Haley converted to Christianity when she got married in the 1990s.
Haley’s campaign declined to respond to Ramaswamy’s comment.
Leaders of Iowa’s evangelical community acknowledge that Ramaswamy’s Hindu faith is an obstacle to his campaign in Iowa, although they say it is not insurmountable.
“There’s no question that it’s probably going to be another hurdle for him to win the Iowa caucuses and get people’s support,” said Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the Family Leader Foundation.
Vander Plaats has been a kingmaker in Iowa’s most recent Republican caucuses, having worked for Huckabee’s winning campaign in 2008 and backing the successful bids of Santorum and Cruz in the next two election cycles. While acknowledging Ramaswamy’s Hindu faith as a challenge, Vander Plaats said faith won’t be the only factor Iowans use to form their alliances.
“I don’t think Iowans are going to have a litmus test with Vivek Ramaswamy,” Vander Plaats said. “It’s not that it’s a complete failure.”
Republican political strategist Dave Kochel, an Iowa caucus veteran who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, also thinks Ramaswamy’s faith could hinder his campaign in Iowa. He recalls seeing how Romney’s membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints influenced his campaign. Romney finished second in the 2008 and 2012 Iowa caucuses.
“Senator Romney’s Mormonism was a problem in northwest Iowa and kind of held back voter turnout in the general election as well,” Kochel said.
Aside from religious differences with some voters, religion and God are important parts of Ramaswamy’s campaign.
Ramaswamy has a series of “10 truths” that form the backbone of his speech and some of the written material distributed at those events. The first of these truths: “God is real.”
On the Sunday before Labor Day, Ramaswamy attended and spoke at a morning service at the Village Bible Church in Amherst, New Hampshire.
He later told NBC News that he told congregants that he feels God put 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 – Jews, Hindus, evangelicals, Christians, Catholics – are not that different in wanting people in office who are outspoken. , who are honest.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com