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 traveled from Hinduism to Protestant Christianity and, ultimately, became 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 his parents would not see him and feeling a stir while watching a movie during his senior year that depicted Jesus 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 early presidential battleground states of Iowa and South Carolina, was part of a 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 GOP 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 activist supporters to help drive excitement outside his home state. So he is harnessing his religious experience in a way that has 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 Republicans eyeing the presidential race.
Other potential 2016 GOP candidates are wooing the evangelical base, including Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.) 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 Rev. Jerry Falwell — Jindal appeared to make progress.
In addition to his dinner with the pastors, he delivered a well-received “call to action” address to 40,000 Christian conservatives gathered for Liberty’s commencement ceremony, talking again about his faith while assailing what he said was President Obama’s record of attacking religious liberty.
The pastors who came to meet Jindal said his intimate descriptions of his experiences stood out.
“He has the convictions, and he has what it takes to communicate them,” said Brad Sherman of Solid Rock Christian Church in Coralville, Iowa. Sherman helped former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in his winning 2008 campaign for delegates in Iowa.
Another Huckabee admirer, the Rev. C. Mitchell Brooks of Second Baptist Church in Belton, S.C., said Jindal’s commitment to Christian values and his compelling story put 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 group that encourages evangelical Christians to engage in the civic arena with voter guides, get-out-the-vote drives and programs to train pastors in grass-roots activism. The group’s founder, David Lane, has built a pastor network in politically important states such as Iowa, Missouri, Ohio and South Carolina and has led trips to Israel with 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. But they said he captured their interest recently when he stepped forward to defend Phil Robertson, patriarch of the “Duck Dynasty” television-show family, amid a controversy over disparaging remarks he made about gays in 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 twin brothers whose HGTV reality series about renovating and reselling houses, “Flip It Forward,” was canceled last week after a Web site revealed that they had protested against same-sex marriage at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
The siblings, Jason and David Benham, both Liberty graduates, attended the graduation and a private lunch with Jindal, who called the action against them “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 cited the Hobby Lobby craft store chain, which faced a legal challenge after refusing to provide employees with insurance coverage for contraceptives as required under the Affordable Care Act. Members of the family that owns Hobby Lobby, who have become heroes to many religious conservatives, have said that they are morally opposed to the use of certain types of birth control and that they considered the requirement a violation of their First Amendment right to religious freedom.
The 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 met.
Piyush Jindal was born in 1971, four months after his parents arrived in Baton Rouge, La., 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 her 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, the Bible and his very existence suddenly seemed clearer to him, Jindal told the pastors.
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.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.