The United States Is a Country of Converts

But how does it feel about one being president? 

Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush
Catholic converts Bobby Jindal and Jeb Bush.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Richard Ellis/Getty Images and Andy Jacobsohn/Getty Images.

America has never elected a president who didn’t identify as Christian. To give you a sense of how important religion is to U.S. voters relative to other traits they value, a 2014 Pew survey found that an atheist candidate was significantly more of a turnoff than a gay candidate, or a candidate known to have had an extramarital affair. Still, just about every president in American history, starting with George Washington, has faced grumbling that they weren’t Christian enough.

Unsurprisingly, then, all the serious current candidates for the 2016 presidential election say they are Christians of one kind or another. There’s a Methodist, a Seventh-day Adventist, and a couple of Southern Baptists. But at this crowded early stage, there are two Republican candidates whose religious pedigrees stand out. Both Bobby Jindal and Jeb Bush are part of the same long American religious tradition: They are converts to Catholicism.

Their Catholicism, which they share with a notable number of other 2016 candidates—including Marco Rubio, George Pataki, and Rick Santorum—raises its own intriguing questions. The United States has only had one Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, and he was elected in a cloud of suspicion that he would secretly take orders from the Vatican. But by the time John Kerry ran in 2004, Catholicism was hardly a third rail. There had been several Catholic nominees for vice president—Joe Biden is Catholic—and Protestants and Catholics simply view each other much less suspiciously than they did in the past. That’s good news: We’ve mellowed a lot since the days when a prominent Protestant minister warned of the Catholic 1928 Democratic candidate, “If you vote for Al Smith, you’re voting against Christ.” (Likewise, despite the continuing disdain for atheists, Pew’s findings suggest we’re warming on that front, too.)

But Bush and Jindal’s status as converts is just as intriguing, in part because America is a nation of converts. According to a large Pew analysis released in May, about one-quarter of all Americans have a different religious identity than the one they were raised in—and that’s not counting the significant number who have abandoned religious identity altogether.

Within this cohort, its Jindal and Bush’s choice of religion that makes them unusual: According to Pew, just 2 percent of American adults are Catholic converts, while 13 percent are former Catholics. (Republican candidates John Kasich and Mike Pence were both born Catholic but  no longer attend Catholic churches.) Jindal’s exodus from Hinduism makes him a double-anomaly, given that Hinduism has the highest retention rate of any American religion, just ahead of Islam and Judaism.

Lincoln Mullen, a historian at George Mason University whose 2014 dissertation focused on conversion narratives in American history, differentiates conversion from simple denomination-switching as something that has a ritual associated with it (like a baptism or bar mitzvah)—and as “something that would make your parents mad.” Conversion to Catholicism fits the bill. It requires several formal steps called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, where Bush has said he found “total serenity and solace.” And for Jindal, at least, it became an issue with his parents, who he has described as “very, very concerned” when he informed them of his conversion. (He says they have since come around.)

Jindal and Bush neatly illustrate what Mullen says are the two major professed motivations for conversion: marriage and a personal change of heart. Cynics might also add “political expediency,” but as Mullen points out, motivations for conversion are always mixed, even among those who aren’t trying to convince a 71 percent Christian nation to elect them to the highest office.

Historically, the meaning of conversion has depended on the meaning of religion. Mullen says that over the course of the 19th century, the nature of what it meant to be religious shifted from an emphasis on inheritability (my parents are Presbyterian, therefore I’m Presbyterian) to choice (I have independently decided that Presbyterianism is the truth). “Everybody felt this pressure that other religions are out there,” Mullen said. “Even if you remain in the religion that you are, you know there’s this possibility.” The century’s most famous Catholic convert, a journalist named Orestes Brownson, tried Congregationalism, Presbyterianism, Universalism, Unitarianism, and Transcendentalism on his way to Catholicism.

Today, even if most of us remain in the religion of our birth, we tend to look at our adult relationship with faith as an independent choice. That contributes to the wild marketplace of religion in America, where the lack of a state church has forced every faith group to scrap for adherents on its own merits. Unsurprisingly, that leads to a lot of faith switching, too.

Jindal’s conversion story has him being wooed by the superiority of Christianity, and a version of peer pressure. He was raised by Indian immigrants who were practicing Hindus. He places his conversion to his high school years, when a friend gave him a Bible for Christmas. Later, a girl invited him to church. “Here I was looking for a date, and meanwhile she was looking to save my soul,” he joked in a commencement address at conservative evangelical Liberty University last year. (Elsewhere, he has said that a “pretty girl” who wanted to become a Supreme Court justice in order to overturn Roe v. Wade helped sway him.)

He began reading the Bible, sometimes in his closet since he wasn’t sure how his parents would react. “The short story is this,” he said at Liberty, “I read the words of Jesus Christ and I realized that they were true.” He formally joined the Catholic Church as a student at Brown University. Later he would identify his conversion as the most important moment in his life.

Jindal frames his conversion in strikingly evangelical terms: He has spoken of turning his life over to Jesus Christ, and of God finding him. He has the backing of the stars of Duck Dynasty, favorites of a certain kind of Southern evangelical Christian. Earlier this year, he spoke to thousands at a prayer rally hosted by the conservative evangelical American Family Association, telling the crowd that America needs a “spiritual revival.” He did not get around to mentioning his Catholicism there.

Bush’s conversion story is more pragmatic. He converted to Catholicism in 1995, following a failed campaign for Florida governor that strained his relationship with his Mexican-born Catholic wife. “I had decided to convert after my campaign for governor, win or lose,” he wrote to a second-grader working on a school project about famous American Catholics in 2003. “My wife is Catholic and we always went to Mass, so she was my principal motivation.”

He, too, has used his conversion to ally himself with conservative Christians of all stripes. In a speech to an Italian Catholic group in 2009, he contrasted Catholicism favorably with the increasingly liberal Episcopalian Church of his birth, praising “the fact that the Catholic Church believes in, and acts on, absolute truth as its foundational principle and doesn’t move with the tides of modern times, as my former religion did.” It would be paranoid to cast that as a dog whistle for evangelicals, but praising “absolute truth” was sure to resonate with them.

Converts occupy a confusing space in the American religious landscape. On the one hand, they are suspected of being overzealous fanatics of the faith. On the other hand, they are also suspected of not quite belonging—vestiges of the notion that religion is not just chosen, but inherited. Look at President Obama, who converted to Christianity in his 20s, gives sermon-esque speeches, and sings “Amazing Grace” in public, and yet is still considered suspicious by those who question the exact timeline and authenticity of his conversion. 

In the religious and political landscape of the 21st century, in which one Catholic can become the favorite choice of conservative evangelical voters and another Catholic can become the Democratic nominee for president, it doesn’t seem likely that a candidate’s Catholicism or convert status will hinder his prospects for the White House. But if being a convert signifies anything important to voters, lets hope it’s something positive: It means he’s willing to change his mind.