Here in America, the most surprising storyline in the Conservative Party’s latest psychodrama is the fact that Rishi Sunak has emerged from it. It is impossible to imagine someone like him being chosen to lead the Republican Party, America’s closest equivalent to the Tories — impossible because Sunak describes himself as a proud Hindu.
Sunak doesn’t eat beef and has a statue of the Indian god Ganesh sitting on his desk. When he was sworn in as an MP in 2017, he placed his hand on the Bhagavad Gita. Such an openly Hindu candidate would have zero chance of leading today’s GOP. This is not because America is more intolerant than Britain, or even because the Republican Party is more intolerant than the Tory Party. It’s because the GOP is far more intolerant religiously.
If you doubt that an openly Hindu — or, for that matter, an openly Muslim or Buddhist candidate — would have no chance of leading today’s Republican Party, consider this. Although Hindus constitute roughly the same percentage of America’s population as they do Britain’s, there’s not a single Hindu Republican member of Congress. Last year, the Pew Research Center noted that of the 261 Republicans in the House and Senate, 258 are Christian, two are Jewish and one doesn’t list their religious affiliation. (The two Hindus, two Buddhists, and three Muslims who currently serve in Congress are all Democrats.) By contrast, two of the Conservative Party’s most prominent figures — Sunak and former Home Secretary, Priti Patel — have both spoken about their Hindu faith. Patel’s successor, Suella Braverman, is a practising Buddhist.
I have specifically identified Sunak, Patel, and Braverman by their religion, not their ethnicity. I’m not arguing that Republicans don’t elect politicians of South Asian descent. They do. Bobby Jindal served for eight years as governor of Louisiana before seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Nikki Haley, who spent six years as governor of South Carolina, is often touted as a future GOP presidential contender.
But there’s a critical difference between Sunak, Patel, and Braverman on the one hand, and Jindal and Haley on the other: the Americans converted to Christianity. They also both took on Americanised first names. That’s their right, of course. I’m not suggesting that Jindal and Haley’s faith is insincere. But given how central Christianity is to Republican political identity, it’s unlikely either would have enjoyed political success without converting. After all, according to Pew, 53% of conservative Republicans say being Christian is an important part of being truly American.
None of this is to say that the GOP isn’t capable of racial and ethnic inclusion. Jindal and Haley were popular with grassroots Republicans, as were Ben Carson and Marco Rubio. Mayra Flores, a Mexican-American woman elected earlier this year from South Texas, is the congressional GOP’s newest star. But it’s almost always a shared conservative Christianity that allows white Republicans to embrace Black, Hispanic, or Asian candidates. And this means conservative Christianity, which can foster racial and ethnic inclusion, can foster religious exclusion at the same time.
Nor does the GOP’s Christian identity exclude all non-Christians equally. Because many conservative Christians are philo-semitic — as evidenced by their use of the phrase “Judeo-Christian” to describe American civilisation — Jewish politicians can prosper in today’s GOP so long as they express ardent admiration for the Christian Right. Josh Mandel offered a fascinating case study in how that’s done when he sought the Republican nomination for Senate earlier this year in Ohio. In an advertisement this spring, Mandel declared that his grandmother was “saved from the Nazis by a network of courageous Christians. Without their faith, I’m not here today”. His campaign website featured a cross and an American flag.
Mandel declared himself both proudly Jewish — his children attend an orthodox Jewish school — and fervently pro-Christian. And had Trump not endorsed his opponent, J.D. Vance, he would most probably be the Republican nominee for Senate. For Muslim Republican candidates, however, proudly asserting your own faith isn’t an option. While 94% of Republicans would vote for a Jew for president, according to Gallup, only 38% would vote for a Muslim. This means that in the rare cases in which Muslim Republicans run for office, they have to do more than praise Christianity. They have to virtually adopt it themselves.
Take the case of Mehmet Oz, the Republican nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania. In a statement on his religious identity earlier this year, Oz wrote that he “was raised as a secular Muslim”, leaving open the question of whether he remains a Muslim today. He then added that his wife “is a Christian who attended seminary and whose mother is an ordained minister. We raised our four children as Christians and beamed with joy watching them and our four grandchildren become baptised.” In other words: don’t worry, Islam is in my past — my family is Christian now. When Barry Goldwater, who identified as Christian despite having a Jewish father, won the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, a Jewish wag quipped: “I always knew the first Jewish president of the United States would be an Episcopalian.” That’s no longer true for Jews, but in the GOP it remains true for politicians like Oz, Jindal, and Haley. Conservative Christians will overlook your non-Christian background so long as you jettison that faith in favour of theirs.
I’m not claiming there’s no religious bias in the UK. Given the Islamophobia stoked by the “war on terror”, the British scholar H.A Hellyer has suggested, in a now-deleted tweet, that it’s easier to be an openly Hindu Tory politician than an openly Muslim one. That’s an important caveat. But the Tories still aren’t as Islamophobic as the GOP, a party whose voters largely supported Donald Trump’s call to ban all Muslims from entering the country.
In fact, when it comes to religious tolerance, the Tories have more in common with the Democrats. The reason has to do with British society. In recent decades, the British population has become far less hegemonically Christian. A 2018 study found that only 38% of Brits now identify as Christian, while 10% identify with other religions and a remarkable 52% identify with no religion at all. In the US, secularisation has been growing rapidly as well, but with a sharp partisan tilt: according to a 2020 Pew Research Center poll, only 52% of Democrats now identify as Christian, compared to 79% of Republicans.
And so today, the Democratic Party, like both of Britain’s major parties, is so religiously pluralistic that it’s willing to elect candidates who don’t identify as Christian or even “Judeo-Christian”; its supporters are now half as likely as Republicans to say being Christian is important to being “truly American” . This is because most Democrats have divorced Americanism from Christianity — which explains why many of them voted for a culturally Jewish but essentially secular presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders.
It’s for that same reason that most would vote comfortably for Kamala Harris, who describes her religious identity as syncretic. As Harris explained: “My mother, an immigrant from India, instilled the same idea in me on trips to Hindu temples. And I’ve also seen it reflected in the Jewish traditions and celebrations I now share with my husband, Doug. From all of these traditions and teachings, I’ve learned that faith is not only something we express in church and prayerful reflection, but also in the way we live our lives, do our work and pursue our respective callings.”
That kind of answer — spiritual but not exclusively Christian — is acceptable in today’s Democratic Party. But it’s unlikely to find favour among Republicans, who can’t embrace Christian nationalism and religious diversity at the same time. That is why there will be no Republican Rishi Sunak — and that is why, at least in this respect, Republicans are still living decades in the past.
A version of this piece first appeared on Peter’s Substack: The Beinart Notebook.