Bobby Jindal, cynical charlatan: How a one-time GOP star turned into another scheming religious wingnut

The Rhodes scholar seemed likely to run for president on policy. Instead, he's pushing religion and intolerance

Published June 28, 2015 10:00AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Brian Snyder)
(Reuters/Brian Snyder)

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who declared his candidacy for president last Wednesday, is passionate about what he calls “religious freedom.” In speech after speech over recent years, the Indian-American governor – a convert from Hinduism to Catholicism in his teens – warns Christian evangelical audiences that liberals are hell-bent on squelching religious speech.

On Friday, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling affirming same-sex marriage rights, Jindal reacted with predictable outrage. He cast the ruling as an assault on Christian values.

“This decision will pave the way for an all out assault against the religious freedom rights of Christians who disagree with this decision,” Jindal said in his statement. “This ruling must not be used as pretext by Washington to erode our right to religious liberty.

“The government should not force those who have sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage to participate in these ceremonies,” Jindal added, previewing a struggle over whether businesses may deny services to same-sex couples. “That would be a clear violation of America’s long held commitment to religious liberty as protected in the First Amendment.”

Long before he declared his candidacy, some political observers pegged Jindal as the presidential hopeful most likely to rely on his policy chops to win support for a White House bid (he ran the University of Louisiana System, served as the state’s secretary of Health and Hospitals and was an assistant secretary of George W. Bush’s Department of Health and Human Services).

Instead, the former Rhodes scholar has emerged as the candidate most eager to cash in on his religious faith.

Jindal routinely speaks at churches and religious gatherings in early primary and caucus states. He delivered the spring 2014 commencement speech at Virginia's Liberty University, asking the graduates, "What happens when our government decides it no longer needs a 'moral and religious people?'"

This is how Jindal answered his question: "It is a war -- a silent war -- against religious liberty. This war is waged in our courts and in the halls of political power. It is pursued with grim and relentless determination by a group of like-minded elites, determined to transform the country from a land sustained by faith — into a land where faith is silenced, privatized, and circumscribed."

Jindal clearly wants to be seen as religion's field general in this imaginary war. Last January, Jindal presided over a controversial prayer rally, "The Response," on the campus of Louisiana State University. The American Family Association, identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “hate group,” helped sponsor the event. Moments before he announced for president at a convention center in Kenner, Louisiana (just outside New Orleans), Jindal invited photographers to snap pictures of him in a prayer circle of evangelical pastors.

In December 2013, when Phil Robertson, of A&E’s once-popular reality show “Duck Dynasty,” was caught making homophobic remarks in a GQ article, Jindal rushed to Robertson’s defense. He claimed that the network’s brief suspension of the show and the criticism of Robertson’s odious remarks were a violation of the reality star’s free speech rights. "I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment," Jindal said in defense of Robertson, now an icon of the religious right. "It is a messed up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended "

In March, after the governors of Indiana and Arkansas withdrew their support of legislation that permitted businesses to refuse services to same-sex couples, Jindal stepped boldly into the fray of religious intolerance. In his speech opening the 2015 Louisiana Legislature in April, Jindal pushed a bill similar to those proposed in Arkansas and Indiana, counting it among his top priorities.

"There used to be bipartisan support for the principle of religious liberty," Jindal told lawmakers. "However, these days, some think diversity of belief is too risky and scary to be tolerated. But that’s wrong ... In the United States, a state should not be able to take adverse action against an individual for holding a sincerely held religious view regarding marriage. That would be true discrimination."

Unimpressed and far more concerned about a $1.6 billion budget shortfall, legislators quickly spiked the bill. Undeterred, Jindal issued a legally questionable executive order that prohibits local and state government officials from taking any action against businesses that discriminate against same-sex couples. "This is even bigger than marriage," Jindal said, defending his order. "It's the right to live your lives 24 hours a day, seven days a week, according to your sincerely held religious beliefs."

When some business leaders in Louisiana, including IBM executives, expressed concern over the order, Jindal responded like the culture warrior he pretends to be: “My warning to those corporate leaders is: If you think you are going to come to Louisiana and bully the governor of Louisiana, don’t waste your breath.”

Even before he began ramping up his presidential campaign and making “religious freedom” a major theme of his speeches, Jindal eagerly pandered to the religious right.

He supported and signed legislation in 2008, which allows the teaching of creationism in Louisiana public schools. Asked recently about his views on evolution, the Brown University biology graduate said, “Let’s teach them about the big bang theory, let’s teach them about evolution – I’ve got no problem if a school board, a local school board, says we want to teach our kids about creationism, that people, some people, have these beliefs as well, let’s teach them about ‘intelligent design.’”

Jindal has also been an enthusiastic supporter of removing children from “failing” public schools and enrolling them, at state expense, in private schools. The vast majority of the schools participating in what Jindal calls a "scholarship" program are substandard, church-based schools that have proven no better, and often worse, than the schools from which the students came. Many of these schools refuse to teach evolution in their science courses.

Not surprisingly, Jindal’s rhetoric and actions on these and other controversial matters have earned him scorn and criticism from many quarters.

"As an orthodox Jewish man and a rabbi, I find Jindal's pursuit of this bill's passage to be sacrilegious and offensive," Orthodox Rabbi Gabriel Greenberg wrote in the New Orleans Times-Picayune in April after Jindal backed the same-sex discrimination bill. "Why would our political leadership -- and particularly those who identify as religious -- choose to seek further action and legislation against the very sectors of our society who are already marginalized and persecuted?"

After Jindal's action, an indignant New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu issued his own executive order, protecting gay couples in his city from discrimination. “In New Orleans, we believe religious liberty and freedoms should be protected and discrimination prohibited, and we have passed our own laws to reflect that principle," Landrieu said, adding that his counter-order was "an important, symbolic affirmation that discrimination in any form will not be tolerated in New Orleans -- and it should not be tolerated anywhere in Louisiana.”

How does Jindal respond to his critics? By distorting their criticism and casting his detractors as secular liberals who despise or ridicule Christianity. “I know that some believe that I talk too much about my faith,” Jindal told supporters when he launched his presidential bid. “But I will not be silenced in order to meet their expectations of political correctness.”

In other words, Jindal says he’s just a deeply spiritual guy who likes to share his faith with others but who gets pummeled for it. The dog whistle to his audiences is clear. In essence, Jindal is saying, "If they attack me for sharing my faith, they will do the same to you. We are at war. They are coming after Christianity. Today, it’s climate change, evolution and same-sex marriage. Eventually, it’s Sharia law and shuttered Christian churches."

Jindal pretends he is the candidate who defends “religious liberty.” Truth is, he is simply another in a long line of religious grifters who talk incessantly about religion and faith, but rarely practice it in any meaningful way. As someone who has observed Jindal closely for his eight years as governor, I can say that I have never heard anyone suggest that he speaks about his faith “too much.”

Perhaps that's because when Jindal talks about his faith, it is rarely to share with his listeners how Jesus Christ has transformed his life (although when speaking at churches, he does sometimes give a personal testimony about his conversion to Christianity). Jindal rarely quotes the Bible, or even Pope Francis, in his speeches.

For kicks, I Googled, "Jindal my faith teaches me." What I got were not statements about grace, humility or the poor. Instead, I found a great deal about Jindal's views on same-sex marriage.

For example, Jindal told CNN in February, "My faith teaches me that marriage is between a man and a woman. I don't believe in discrimination against anybody. I'm not for changing the definition of marriage." In my search, I could not find Jindal being quoted talking about what his faith teaches him about society’s obligations to the poor, the sick or the imprisoned.

In fact, when he has spoken about the poor, it’s often been to attack them as shiftless moochers. When explaining why he refused to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid in Louisiana under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, Jindal wrote, "we should design our policies so that more people are pulling the cart than riding in the cart." In other words, he sees the working poor of his state, not as Jesus might – “the least of these” – but as shiftless individuals to mock and demean.

Beyond his rhetoric about Louisiana’s working poor, is Jindal's tangible treatment of them. He’s stubbornly and callously denied them health insurance. He’s done little to address the state’s scandalous poverty rate. He’s presided over a state tax system that punishes the poorest citizens at twice the rate of its wealthiest.

Put simply, in his public utterances and his actions, Jindal never quotes the Bible’s teachings on the poor. (Jesus, who never mentioned homosexuality, talked about his followers' obligations to the poor more than almost any subject. And the Jewish scriptures, as well as the New Testament, are full of admonitions and commands to care for the poor.) When he speaks of his faith, Jindal has no time or compassion for his state’s poverty-stricken fellow citizens.

His protests to the contrary, Jindal does not actually speak about his faith. And that’s what makes all his blather about “religious freedom” so empty and insincere.

Jindal hasn’t been attacked for sharing his faith; he’s been attacked, and rightly so, for imposing his narrow (or cynical) interpretation of his faith on the citizens of Louisiana. He's been attacked for trying to write his faith into law.

As a lifelong Christian, who teaches Sunday school most weekends at my United Methodist congregation in Baton Rouge, I would love to hear Jindal speak more often -- and more thoughtfully -- about his faith and what it teaches him about his obligations to humanity.

Instead of sharing his faith, however, Jindal panders to the sense of fear and grievance of many on the far right. Jindal and his supporters mistake criticism of his attempts to turn his religious views into law as a blanket criticism of Christianity. They are not the same.

Jindal, of course, isn’t a stupid man. He knows well that there’s no plot on the left to deny Christians access to the public square. He knows Christianity isn’t under assault from liberals.

What he knows, however, is that grievance and fear sells, especially among a certain subset of the Christian right that believes Barack Obama’s election as president set the country on a fast path to hell.

"They don’t accept the idea that you can be both intellectual and Christian," Jindal said of his critics last Wednesday when announcing for president. "They can’t fathom the notion that you can be both smart and conservative. But, they need to get out more. There’s a big country out here with millions of Americans who believe in God and are not ashamed to say so.

"I would be wary of a president who didn’t seek wisdom from the Almighty," Jindal continued. "I don’t know about you, but I’ve met many very smart people who lack wisdom. Yet Christianity is under assault today in America. But the liberals have forgotten their history. Religious liberty is not some quaint notion from the past. It is fundamental to our freedom. That’s why it is protected in the First Amendment to the Constitution. I’m going to say this slowly so that even Hillary Clinton can understand it. America did not create religious liberty, religious liberty created the United States of America."

When Bobby Jindal shares his faith, he is not sharing how his decision to follow Jesus changed his life. He's not telling us what the Bible teaches him about anything, other than the right to use narrow religious doctrine as a pretext for discriminating against people that his supporters in the Christian right regard as immoral.

Jindal isn't attacked for being a Christian. He's been attacked for being the opposite of a Christian -- a cynical charlatan who appeals to the grievance, fear and hatred among the Christian right.

Jindal is not sharing his faith. He's showing his bigotry.

By Robert Mann

Robert Mann is Manship Chair of Journalism at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication and author of “Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater and the Ad that Changed American Politics.”

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