LYNCHBURG, Va. — A dozen politically active pastors came here for a private dinner Friday night to hear a conversion story unique in the context of presidential politics: how Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, R, traveled from Hinduism to Protestant Christianity and, ultimately, to become what he calls an “evangelical Catholic.”
Over two hours, Jindal, 42, recalled talking with a girl in high school who wanted to “save my soul,” reading the Bible in a closet so that his parents would not see him and feeling a stir while watching a movie during his senior year that depicted Jesus Christ on the cross.
“I was struck and struck hard,” Jindal told the pastors. “This was the Son of God, and he had died for our sins.”
Jindal’s session with the Christian clergy, who lead congregations in the important early presidential battleground states of Iowa and South Carolina, was part of an early behind-the-scenes effort by the Louisiana governor to find a political base that could help propel him into the top tier of Republican candidates seeking to run for the White House in 2016.
Known in Republican circles mostly for his mastery of policy issues such as health care, Jindal, a Rhodes Scholar and graduate of the Ivy League’s Brown University, does not have an obvious pool of existing activist supporters to help drive excitement outside of his home state. So he is harnessing his personal religious experience in a way that has already begun to appeal to parts of the GOP’s influential core of religious conservatives, many of whom have yet to find a favorite among the pack of Republican contenders eyeing the presidential race.
Other potential 2016 GOP candidates are wooing the evangelical base, including Sens. Rand Paul, Ky., and Ted Cruz, Texas, and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
But over the weekend in Lynchburg, a mecca of sorts for evangelicals as the home of Liberty University, founded in the 1970s by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jindal appeared to make progress.
In addition to his dinner with the pastors, Jindal delivered a well-received “call to action” address to 40,000 Christian conservatives gathered for Liberty’s commencement, talking again about his personal faith while assailing what he said was President Barack Obama’s record of attacking religious liberty.
The pastors who came to meet Jindal said his intimate descriptions of his faith experiences stood out.
“He has the convictions, and he has what it takes to communicate them,” said Brad Sherman of the Solid Rock Christian Church in Coralville, Iowa, who helped former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in his winning 2008 campaign for delegates in Iowa.
Another Huckabee admirer, Pastor Mitch Brooks of Second Baptist Church in Belton, S.C., said that Jindal’s commitment to Christian values and his compelling personal story “puts him on a par” with Huckabee, who was a Baptist preacher before entering politics.
The visiting pastors flew to Lynchburg over the weekend at the invitation of the American Renewal Project, a well-funded nonprofit that encourages evangelical Christians to engage in the civic arena with voter guides, get-out-the-vote drives and programs to train pastors in grassroots activism. The group’s founder, David Lane, has built a pastor network in politically important states such as Iowa, Missouri, South Carolina and Ohio and has led trips to Israel with Sen. Paul and others seeking to make inroads with evangelical activists.
The group that Lane invited to Lynchburg included Donald Wildmon, a retired minister and founder of the American Family Association, a prominent evangelical activist group that has influence through its network of more than 140 Christian radio stations.
Most of the pastors that Lane’s organization brought to Lynchburg had not met Jindal before. But they said he had captured their interest recently when the governor stepped forward to defend Phil Robertson, patriarch of the “Duck Dynasty” television show family, amid a controversy over disparaging remarks he made about gays during an interview with GQ Magazine.
Throughout his Lynchburg visit, Jindal presented himself as a willing culture warrior.
During his commencement address Saturday, he took up the cause of the twin brothers whose HGTV reality series on flipping houses, “Flip It Forward,” was canceled last week after a website revealed that the brothers had protested gay marriage at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
The siblings, Jason and David Benham, both Liberty graduates, attended the graduation and a private lunch with Jindal, who called the action against the brothers “another demonstration of intolerance from the entertainment industry.”
“If these guys had protested at the Republican Party convention, instead of canceling their show, HGTV would probably have given them a raise,” Jindal said as the Liberty crowd applauded.
He also cited the Hobby Lobby craft store chain, which faced a legal challenge after refusing to provide contraceptive services to employees as required under the Affordable Care Act. Members of the Hobby family, who have become heroes to many religious conservatives, have said they are morally opposed to the use of certain contraceptives considered the requirement a violation of their First Amendment right to religious freedom.
The Hobby family was “committed to honor the Lord by being generous employers, paying well above minimum wage and increasing salaries four years in a row even in the midst of the enduring recession,” Jindal told the Liberty graduates. “None of this matters to the Obama administration.”
But, for the pastors who came to see Jindal in action, the governor’s own story was the highlight of the weekend. And in many ways he was unlike any other aspiring president these activists had ever met.
Piyush Jindal was born four months after his parents arrived in Baton Rouge from their native India. He changed his name to “Bobby” as a young boy, adopting the name of a character on a favorite television show, “The Brady Bunch.”
His decision to become a Christian, he told the pastors, did not come in one moment of lightning epiphany. Instead, he said, it happened in phases, growing from small seeds planted over time.
Jindal recalled that his closest friend from grade school gave him a Bible with his name emblazoned in gold on the cover as a Christmas present. It struck him initially as an unimpressive gift, Jindal told the pastors.
“Who in the world would spend good money for a Bible when everyone knows you can get one free in any hotel?” he recalled thinking at the time. “And the gold lettering meant I couldn’t give it away or return it.”
His religious education reached a higher plane during his junior year in high school, he told his dinner audience. He wanted to ask a pretty girl on a date during a hallway conversation, and she started talking about her faith in God and opposition to abortion. The girl invited him to visit her church.
Jindal said he was skeptical and set out to “investigate all these fanciful claims” made by the girl and other friends. He started reading the Bible in his closet at home. “I was unsure how my parents would react,” he said.
After the stirring moment when he saw Christ depicted on the cross during the religious movie, Jindal told the pastors, the Bible and his very existence suddenly seemed clearer to him.
Jindal did not dwell on his subsequent conversion to Catholicism just a few years later in college, where he said he immersed himself in the traditions of the church.
He touched on it briefly during the commencement address, noting in passing that “I am
best-described as an evangelical Catholic.” Mostly, he sought to showcase the ways in which he shares values with other Christian conservatives.
“I read the words of Jesus Christ, and I realized that they were true,” Jindal told the graduates Saturday, offering a less detailed accounting of his conversion than he had done the night before with the pastors. “I used to think that I had found God, but I believe it is more accurate to say that he found me.”
<span class="ng_tagline_contrib">Washington Post researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.</span>