Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina and former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., opened up about her faith and her conversion to Christianity on the podcast “Journeys of Faith with Paula Farris.” She recounted her conversion from the Sikh faith and said she depended on God to save her after the horrific white supremacist shooting at a historically black church in Charleston in 2015.
Haley began the interview explaining her Sikh upbringing and her parents’ decision to take her to church at many different Christian denominations during her childhood.
“It’s interesting because we were the only Indian family in a small southern town: probably less than 1 percent of the population in South Carolina is Indian,” the former governor recalled. “And then you go and you look at the Sikhs in the area. I mean it was just small. Every third Sunday, Sikh families would get together at someone’s home in the state to have prayers, and so it was probably no more than 100 people.”
“But the faith itself is a very kind, peaceful faith. It’s one that’s all-accepting. They believe in one God,” she explained.
In addition to the Sikh worship, Haley attended various churches. “My parents made us go to different churches — Methodist, Baptist, Catholic. My mom would say, ‘I want you to respect everyone and how they do their prayers, but understand there’s one God, but everyone has their own pathway.’”
“They just wanted us one to respect other religions but two to understand and see the relationship people have with God,” she explained.
During the Sikh prayers, “I would feel God in the room, but I couldn’t understand it because I didn’t know the language.” She did not understand the Sikh dialect of Punjabi.
“And so when I started dating my husband and we started going more and more to his church, and he was Methodist, I immediately could relate,” Haley explained. “All of a sudden there was not just the feeling but it was the words that I could relate to that really meant something to me. If I wanted to have a stronger relationship, I needed to have something that spoke to me.”
Sikhism and Christianity hold many doctrines in common, so she was able to build on her old faith while embracing her conversion.
She emphasized Sikhism’s positions encouraging “respect for parents, respect for family, love of all people, respect for all people. The Sikh faith acknowledges other religions. It acknowledges Jesus, that Jesus was the Son of God.”
“What I take from it is the respect and the peaceful side the Sikh faith,” Haley said. “When I converted to Christianity, those are all things you can build on.”
When she married Michael Haley in 1996, the couple held two ceremonies: an Indian ceremony and a Christian ceremony.
The former governor said that marriage and family made her faith grow.
“First, you have a faith because your parents teach you to have a strong faith. Then you start to grow when you get married because you have a faith together with your husband. And then when you have children, it takes you to a whole new level,” she explained. Haley and her husband set out to teach their children “a faith and a conscience.”
She experienced a “huge turning point” in her faith in 2015, when a white supremacist killed nine black Christians at a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
“When we dealt with the Charleston shooting, I think that was a huge turning point for me because it was so painful and it was so hard that there was no one or nothing that was going to get me through that but God,” Haley recalled.
Farris asked her, “Where do you think you’d be without your faith?”
“I can’t imagine my life without my faith,” Haley replied. “Emptiness is all I can think of.”
She recalled getting diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after the Charleston shooting. “I was diagnosed with PTSD and I felt so guilty because I wasn’t in that room where the murders took place. I knew too many of the details, I knew too many of the people we had lost,” the former governor said.
“I was so desperate. I remember praying to God, saying, ‘I don’t know how to get through this, I need You.'”
“Had it not been for my faith, had it not been for God touching me and saying, ‘I’ve got you,’ I would not have gotten through that. I know that without a question,” Haley said. “I know how God has saved me way more times than I can count.”
When asked to describe her faith with one word, she said, “Deep.”
Out of the traumatic experience of leading South Carolina after the Charleston shooting, Haley seized on Joshua 1:9, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Haley is widely considered a likely presidential contender for the 2024 Republican primary. She resigned from her post at the U.N. at the end of 2018 in order to spend more time with her family.
For the 2020 election, the former governor will campaign for President Donald Trump, along with other Republican senators and governors. “That will get my campaign fix,” she told Farris. At the same time, she started a policy group called Stand for America to educate young people on various issues such as “capitalism versus socialism,” term limits, and “why we fight for the people of Hong Kong and the Iranian protesters.”
She said she is taking one year at a time, adding that she cannot even consider running for president at this point.
“My husband and I have never once had the conversation about should we do this,” Haley said.
The former governor also touched on a moment in the 2016 election after she had endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in the Republican primary and Trump had tweeted, “The people of South Carolina are embarrassed by Nikki Haley.” At the time, the governor replied, “Bless your heart.”
“That was him and that was me,” Haley recalled. She noted that Trump backed her in her first run for governor. “I knew when kicked, he hollers. He knew, when I’m pushed, I push back. So we’ve always had a respect for each other.”
“I am so blessed that I had the opportunity to work for him in the Administration. I loved defending and fighting for America,” Haley said. Of herself and Trump, she said, “We just were very much in synch.”
“There was never a time I didn’t feel heard, there was never a time when I felt disrespected,” she added. “I loved that job. You know, what it came down to is I have always prioritized my family. … Family always came first.”
She said she resigned from the U.N. position to take care of her parents — who live with Haley and her husband — because her mother has Parkinson’s disease. She also wanted to be there for her son during his college search.
Whether or not Nikki Haley runs for president in 2024, she is likely to have an important role in the Republican Party going forward. Her religious history — a Sikh of Indian-American heritage who converted to Christianity — makes her a fascinating character on the national scene, as does her complex history regarding the Confederate flag. Expect more from this great American in the future.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.