Nikki Haley's faith caused a stir in her primary race for governor of South Carolina when her upbringing as a Sikh drew questions from her opponents. She occasionally visits a Sikh temple in honor of her family's tradition, but she regularly attends a Methodist church. Her new book, Can't Is Not an Option, explains her conversion to Christianity and the kinds of questions she faced as the daughter of immigrants. CT spoke with Haley about her conversion, whether Mitt Romney has a "woman problem," and how her faith influences her policy.

Since you faced questions about your Christian faith and Sikh upbringing, what would you say to those who would question President Obama's faith?

We have the right to ask what faith someone follows. But what church they go into and what they do in that church doesn't matter as much as what they do when they come out. How strong is their faith, and how does that lead them into decisions going forward that will impact the states and the country? That's what I think matters the most. Yes, my husband and I are Christians, but we're not going to say anything negative about the way my parents raised me, because they reminded us every day how blessed we were to live in this country. My mother took us to every church in my hometown because she wanted me to see the many ways that people get to God and to respect all of them. She would say you can't have too much God in your life. She actually wanted us to be exposed so that we weren't judgmental, so we didn't think it was wrong. We shouldn't have to put anyone else down in order to talk positively about what we believe.

You attend a United Methodist Church, Mt. Horeb—would you describe yourself as evangelical or born-again in addition to being Methodist?

We've always been somewhat private about our faith because I'm not one that likes to see politics in church. We sit in the back row in church because we want to hear and feel the message without distraction. I don't want to go to a label because I don't know what that means. I know that we both feel like we have personal relationships with God that we want to continue to strengthen for ourselves and for our family.

You wrote, "I converted to Christianity because the teachings of Christ spoke to me in a way that I could understand and that would help me live my life." Do you see religion as something that has a benefit?

Absolutely. When you go to a position like this, the one thing that helps you get through political challenges is your faith. You have to have a deep faith, you have to have a strong connection to God, and you have to stay very close to your family. In this job, there's a lot you can control and a lot you can't control. At some point you put your hands up and you say God's going to let the right thing happen.

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Was there a specific moment that you had a come to Jesus experience or said "This is what I believe"?

I think it was somewhat of a long conversation, but it was more of me trying to figure out who I was and how I was going to be. I felt my faith, and I felt the feelings, but I couldn't understand the language. It was like I developed the connection with God just in an emotional way. When I met my husband and we started talking about how we wanted to raise our family, it was really just listening to the teaching and going to church. I felt like I took something I knew was right, which was a strong belief that there was a Lord, but being able to put that in words that I could understand—I can't explain it, but it was just a very enlightening and a very good moment for me and a good moment for our family.

You have written that your opponents "wouldn't be satisfied unless I said my parents were going to hell or that the way they lived their life was wrong. I wasn't about to do that and I never will." Do you hope at some point that your parents will convert to Christianity?

What I hope is that my parents do what's right for them. My brother and I have converted to Christianity and my other brother and sister are still Sikh. So for me it's not something that I ever want to be judgmental on. I know my parents are two people of a very strong faith. I respect all that they've done in raising their four kids and in the opportunities that they've given us. So no, I would never push that on them, because I wouldn't want them to take that as me saying that the way they raised us was wrong.

You wrote, "My conversion and my walk with God as a Christian remains intensely personal to me—I will probably never be one of those politicians who sprinkles biblical passages in every speech. Mind you, I have no objection to those who do." Do you have specific policy stances because of your faith?

I've always felt like there are certain politicians that wear their religion on their sleeve in a way that you almost feel is disingenuous. I think that your faith has to be first personal. I struggle with those people that preach something and go back behind closed doors and live differently. You see that a lot in politics—they will go out and talk about what they believe in, and then they go behind closed doors and they do things to hurt people. It's not what you say, it's what you do. And that's really what I believe. I always say that our faith does play out. My husband was adopted and we had difficulty having both of my children, so we know the gift that life is. We do believe marriage is between a man and a woman. It's how you stand on that kind of thing or how you vote that really makes a difference.

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Some have said that you downplay your Christian faith. And Time magazine recently asked if you would give a bigger tip to a Sikh cabdriver.

It shows that ignorance comes in many different types. Were those things offensive? Of course. But I never played down my background. It's the reason I start every speech by saying, "I'm the proud daughter of Indian parents who reminded us every day how blessed we are to live in this country." This is the great American story. Everything that has happened to me in my life has defined who I am, and all of the things leading up to being governor, that all came from overcoming challenges in childhood and overcoming challenges as I got older. When you have God, you quickly understand there's nothing you can't overcome.

You told Stephen Colbert you wear high heels as ammunition. Do you feel female politicians face negative perceptions among Christian voters? Are there specific perceptions women face?

When I was running, everybody told me why I shouldn't: "You're too young; you've got small children; you don't have time for that; you should start at school boards." There will always be naysayers and there will always be people that try and stop you from going forward. I was so surprised at the number of people that said, after seeing what I went through, that they would never go into politics. That was the total opposite of what I wanted people to take from my story. I wanted them to understand that this is why we need real people to run; this is why we need more women to run. I would say it's not that women have a harder time; it's just that we don't have enough women running.

Do you think Mitt Romney or the Republican Party have a problem reaching out to women?

I don't think so at all. They care about jobs and the economy and healthcare and education. They care about so many different things, and they have a thoughtful and broad approach. So to try and say there's a war on women—that's just not the case. An example is the fact that we're seeing women rise into good positions. We're seeing more women employed than men. We're seeing higher salaries. We're seeing all those things showing the quality of life of women is improving. It's because women are proving themselves.

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You just started governing a couple years ago—do you think you would have enough experience to become a vice presidential candidate?

When you see the chance that the people of South Carolina took on me, I have an obligation to fulfill. I have a commitment to fulfill. It's very important that I continue that role of them trusting government and continue that role of what I promised to give four years to do. So no, I would not accept a cabinet position or a vice presidential position.

Mike Gerson recently suggested Romney could alleviate his "woman problem" by focusing on the vulnerable. Are there issues that Republicans could focus on that would bring something like compassionate conservatism back to the forefront?

I do think Governor Romney needs to get out there and talk to women about jobs and the economy, healthcare, education, and the debt that is going to affect their children and grandchildren. The other side of it is you look at his wife and you see that she is not only a cancer survivor—she's an MS survivor. She's a great, strong mom, she's a wonderful wife, and she's a strong supporter of her husband. That is also going to be a great asset and he's going to be able to show this country what a strong woman looks like.

The issues you brought up are not the typical hot-button social conservative issues of abortion and gay marriage. Is it smart for the Republican Party to focus on the economy instead of social issues this time around?

I think those are things that are always going to be strong on the Republican and conservative platform. Those are values that are instilled in us that we continue to fight for. But everybody knows someone without a job right now. Everyone is feeling the pain of the federal debt because it's being passed on to the taxpayers.

We're seeing reports that Republican congressional leaders are getting cold feet on marriage. Is it smart politically to focus more on the economy?

Republicans need to stay strong on the fact that marriage is between a man and a woman. Those are values that are true to the party and true to who we are. They could focus on jobs and the economy, but we all know that keeping the family structure intact is very important in our country. I don't think they have to pick between one and the other. I absolutely hope they would side on traditional marriage and not waver on that.

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Many Republican candidates emphasize strong border security, while others emphasize a way for immigrants to be able to earn legal status. What is the best emphasis?

We need to secure the borders. We need to stop that flow from coming in. We need to put harsh laws in place. My immigrant parents, who came legally and put in the time and the money, are offended by those who don't come the right way.

The other side is we need to expand the worker visa program, because we've got industries in our country—agriculture, construction, any of those service-related industries where they're having trouble finding somebody—that need workers so they continue to be strong. But we should make sure people are here legally.

There has been a lot of concern on Shari'ah laws recently. Do you think it's important or unhelpful to focus on these anti-Shari'ah laws? Could passing these laws lead to a precedent for other areas of religious freedom?

It's a conversation that always has to go back to the will of the people. If the people are concerned about it, then yes. In South Carolina it has become something of an issue, and we have said we are going to stay focused on it and make sure we are doing everything we can to make sure we're not finding any sort of relationship to Shari'ah law. I think right now it's a state-by-state issue.

We always have to be careful. There is that freedom of religion that we revere in this country and we want to make sure we can do that. At the same time, we have to make sure we're protecting the people of our states. So it has to be on a case-by-case basis where you look at the laws.

How would you respond to Christian relief organizations that have expressed concern over the government cutting funding to programs that aid the world's poor?

Government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people; it wasn't intended to be all things to all people. When I look at the fact that we need to strengthen law enforcement, government does that. But then what I'm doing is going to the charity side, the private sector side, to take care of those who are in need. It's not that Republicans don't care—Republicans just don't think government should pay for it, and there're other ways to accomplish these things.

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Related Elsewhere:

Previous Christianity Today interviews with politicians include:

Q & A: Mitch Daniels on the Economy, His Quiet Faith, and a Social Issues Truce | Why the governor of Indiana is ambivalent about "compassionate conservatism," sees fiscal responsibility as a moral issue, and still wants a truce on social issues. (October 3, 2011)
Q & A: Michele Bachmann on Cuts for Aid Relief, Obama's Faith and Credibility, and Francis Schaeffer | The Tea Party caucus chair talks to CT about recent military actions in Libya, why she opposes governmental steps to combat global warming, and her potential presidential candidacy. (April 14, 2011)
Q & A: Rick Santorum on Muslims, Religious Freedom, and 'Walking' for President | The former senator from Pennsylvania talks about what he thinks Obama got right and becoming a target of the gay community. (April 5, 2011)

CT also follows political developments on the politics blog.

Can't Is Not an Option: My American Story
Can't Is Not an Option: My American Story
Sentinel
2012-04-03
256 pp., 51.97
Buy Can't Is Not an Option: My American Story from Amazon