Bobby Jindal Courts Religious Right With His Eye On 2016
"The groups that are more and more picked on in society are evangelical Christians," Louisiana's governor tells BuzzFeed. Is the future of social conservatism in Baton Rouge?
BATON ROUGE, La. — Walking the perimeter of the sitting room in the Louisiana Governor's Mansion, it is easy to forget that the palatial plantation-style house is home to a family of actual human beings. Paintings rest on carefully positioned easels, and well-fluffed couch cushions are placed just so on ornate, unsittable furniture. The sole sign of life: a pile of lesson books spread untidily across the top of a piano in the far corner of the room.
"We make them all play," explained Bobby Jindal, Louisiana's popsicle stick-shaped governor, attributing the debris to his three young children. "They're not that happy about it, but they will play as long as we make them play. It's one of those things I think they'll appreciate later in life." Perched at a circular table in the sunlit office adjacent to the sitting room earlier this month, Jindal seemed to take some pride in the modest mess, noting that he is the first governor in decades to have little kids in the mansion. "You don't want them to feel like they're living in a museum."
Jindal has an encyclopedic knowledge of Louisiana's storied political history, and an acute sense of his own unique place in it. On this particular morning, he was caught up in a story about Jimmie Davis, the state's 47th governor, best known for writing the old country song, "You Are My Sunshine," and spending a lot of money to build the Governor's Mansion.
"It was about a million dollars, which was very controversial in '63, and he barely lived in it because he built it and then moved out," Jindal said. "But he built his personal home back there" — he gestured in the general direction of the backyard — "and he had a gate built into the fence so he could walk over and go swimming, because there was a swimming pool here at the mansion. The story is that the current governors would go back there and find him skinny-dipping in the pool."
"I don't know if that was true or not," he hastened to add. "That was before I got here. But he built the house so he felt entitled, I guess."
Entitlement was a common trait in the parade of good ol' boys that dominated Bayou State politics for more than a century. But Jindal, an Indian-American raised by demanding immigrant parents in a middle-class Baton Rouge suburb, stormed into office in 2008 on the strength of something different — a hard-earned résumé, and a talent for convincing suspicious, tight-knit pockets of voters that he was one of them. Now, the most underrated prospect in the 2016 presidential field is plotting the charm offensive that could carry him to the White House. His target: the religious right.
While much of the Republican Party has written off the conservative Christian movement as a shrinking niche to be appeased but not feared, Jindal is working deliberately to consolidate their support and position himself as the election-year champion of values voters — building relationships with evangelical power brokers, surrounding himself with veterans of Rick Perry's 2012 campaign, and lacing his rhetoric with culture-war calls for religious freedom.
The strategy has begun to catch the attention of key figures on the Christian right.
Michael Farris, the founder of the evangelical Patrick Henry College and a champion of Christian home-schoolers — a key element of Iowa's conservative base — said Jindal's name is buzzing in activist circles.
"I think he's a top-tier candidate and he'll resonate a lot with that community," Farris said, comparing him to Mike Huckabee, the minister-cum-candidate who remains one of the brightest stars on the religious right.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and a longtime Jindal ally, praised him as one of the few prospective 2016 candidates with an unimpeachable record on social issues, and a personal life that exemplifies conservative religious values. As an example, Perkins noted that Jindal and his wife, Supriya, were the first couple in the country to enter into a "covenant marriage," a special sort of legal union designed by Perkins in Louisiana when he was a state lawmaker that makes divorce more difficult.
"His foundation [is] really centered on his Christian faith," Perkins said. "Talk is cheap, but the walk is where you find the worth of an individual. And he is walking."
Perkins told BuzzFeed he is now informally advising Jindal on how to build grassroots support among the GOP's religious voters, and he envisions a groundswell of support among activists if he decides to run. (The governor has said he will make a decision about 2016 after the midterms.)
On paper, Jindal seems like an improbable candidate to marshall the religious right in the culture wars. He is an ethnic minority in a movement that is almost entirely white. He is a Rhodes scholar who spent his early career managing federal bureaucrats and making a name for himself as a sharp-minded conservative policy wonk. And while he can be funny and warm in person — demonstrating a higher social IQ than many realize — his general demeanor is less pulpit-pounding preacher, and more well-prepped college debater, speaking rapidly and often bullet-pointing his thoughts out loud.
Perhaps most problematically, Jindal was raised Hindu, and became a Catholic in his late teens only after a complicated, and sometimes messy, conversion that he later detailed in a series of articles for an obscure religious journal. The most famous of these — at least in political circles — is a lengthy first-person essay about reluctantly taking part in a ritual during college that aimed to cast a dark spirit out of a love interest. The articles are nuanced, fascinating, and deeply human, revealing a level of self-awareness and sophistication about faith that is uncommon among aspiring politicians. But they don't add up to the sort of tidy, easy-to-sell narrative to which many conservative Christian voters have grown accustomed. For that, Jindal relies on the experts.
Two of his closest political advisers are Timmy Teepell, a Baton Rouge native and longtime aide to the governor who is deeply immersed in evangelical politics, and Curt Anderson, a veteran of presidential campaigns, including, most recently, Rick Perry's.
Anderson said if Jindal runs he won't pigeonhole himself as a social conservative, and pointed to the governor's expansive policy agenda, including a controversial education overhaul in Louisiana, and a detailed health care proposal. "Do I think he'll appeal to the evangelicals? Yes… But he doesn't fit in a tidy way into everybody's different groupings," Anderson said. "I would say he's really a kind of full-spectrum conservative, from economic issues to more social moral issues. He's a pretty robust, doctrinaire guy."
But privately, people in Jindal's inner circle view religious conservatives as a crucial piece of his 2016 coalition, and Anderson and Teepell have helped him refine his pitch to that community over the past year.
Speaking with BuzzFeed, Jindal firmly rejected the notion, floated by many in his party, that the GOP must jettison its social agenda in order to win national elections. But like other savvy, high-profile Republicans, he believes conservatives should actively recast the culture wars as a fight for the freedom to live according to one's faith — not as a crusade to force a strict moral code on America.
"I gave a talk at Liberty University, where I told the graduates that they were entering a world more secular than the one their parents went into," said Jindal. "That, as believers, that was their opportunity to be a light in the world. I told them I don't think you should go out there and be victims and complain about it… But it just seems to me that increasingly the groups that are more and more picked on in society are evangelical Christians."
As examples, Jindal cited the backlash against Phil Robertson, the bearded patriarch on A&E's hit reality show Duck Dynasty, after he made crude comments about homosexuality in an interview with GQ last year. At the time, Jindal seized on the culture war flashpoint, and vigorously defended the Robertson family (who live in Louisiana) when the cable channel considered suspending the star. Since then, Jindal has repeatedly pointed to the episode as proof of growing intolerance toward conservative Christians.
"There's a lot of stuff on TV I find offensive, and I change the channel," Jindal said. "Now, I'm not saying as governor I want to tell A&E what they can and can't do. They're a private business, they've got a right to put whatever content they want on the air... I'm just saying as a culture, I think it's a very dangerous place if we go from being a society that was founded because of religious liberty, to a place where we become so intolerant of those who disagree with us that we try to either silence their views, or we try limit their views to where you can only have them for an hour on Sunday."
Some of this may sound like standard red meat for the right — particularly when he punctuates it with a made-for-CPAC joke: "Britney Spears is still on TV but Phil Robertson's not! How does this make sense in our society?" But it actually represents a key shift in the terms of the GOP's social agenda: Jindal is, ostensibly, arguing not for a Christian nation, but a diverse and open-minded one. He is framing his defense of conservative evangelicals as a call for pluralism — not exactly a rhetorical trademark of the old religious right.
While critics will argue that this stance is disingenuous and cynical, Jindal believes it could resonate well beyond the Republican primaries. "My hope is that there may even be folks who disagree with me on the definition of marriage, or may disagree with me on some of the more traditional social issues, but will say it's important in America that we stand for religious liberty."
Jindal's vision of modern social conservatism contains other updates as well. Rather than moralizing about the pernicious evils of drug culture and the need to crack down on addicts, he has followed some of his Republican colleagues in adopting a softer — and, perhaps, more Christian — stance. He said he doesn't favor legalization, but, "I'm absolutely in favor of making sure that, especially [for] nonviolent offenders, we're providing drug treatment, rehabilitation, instead of just continuing to lock them up." He added, "The reality is that I think it's better for those individuals to get back as productive members of society."
Skeptics of Jindal's 2016 prospects question whether he could raise the money required to wage a credible primary campaign. But Anderson dismissed the naysayers, noting that Jindal was a successful fundraiser as the head of the Republican Governors Association. "Do I think he'll set the Mitt Romney, Barack Obama record? No. But the guy is not afraid to ask for the order," said Anderson. "He'll ask for money. I think he'll be ready for that."
The other commonly cited strike against Jindal's presidential ambitions is the lingering effect of his painfully awkward response to the president's State of the Union address in 2009. His stunted delivery and kindergarten-teacher intonation prompted an immediate pile-on by the pundit class and a flurry of memes comparing him to various cartoonish buffoons, like Kenneth, the wide-eyed, mouth-breathing page on NBC's sitcom 30 Rock. More than five years later, Farris said he still hears activists talk about Jindal's bungled primetime debut.
"That's a fair assessment," Farris said. "But for the people who are listening to him in the last couple years, they're saying, 'Wow he's gotten really good. I would rate him as a first-rate speaker now.'"
On a Friday night in early June, Jindal stepped onto a stage in Columbia, S.C., as the headliner for the state party's annual Silver Elephant Dinner. Looking out over a sea of seersuckers, he delivered a rat-a-tat litany of attacks on the Obama administration, accusing the president of adopting a "catch-and-release policy toward terrorists" — a reference to the Taliban prisoner swap that has riled conservatives — and excoriating the White House's approach to foreign policy.
His delivery was polished, but it wasn't until about halfway through the speech — the part when he accused Obama of trampling on Americans' First Amendment rights — that the audience really started to respond.
"It didn't stop with Hobby Lobby," Jindal declared. "This is an administration that has taken on religious liberties throughout our society … You may remember that this is a president who, when he was campaigning in California, accused the country of clinging to our guns and religion."
He paused, and then smirked as he delivered the punchline: "Now, I know that was supposed to be an insult, but as the governor of Louisiana, I'm proud to report to you that we've got plenty of guns and religion."
The crowd went wild.