Tudor Dixon kneeled in the front row of a Catholic church in Rochester Hills, her eyes closed and hands clasped together in prayer. Seated next to the Republican nominee for governor was former U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii as other worshippers lined up to receive Communion at St. Paul Albanian Catholic Church, which serves a growing Albanian American community in metro Detroit.
“We’re fighting with prayer,” Dixon said after the Oct. 30 service led by the Rev. Mark Kalaj, an Albanian immigrant who had delivered a sermon that expressed support for conservative principles.
Dixon thanked Kalaj for his story of faith and fleeing a repressive government and then spoke of her own beliefs, describing a “prayer warrior” who supported her at a debate last week with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“Honestly, I can’t tell you, the blessings that we have experienced on this campaign have been so amazing,” she said after Sunday Mass. “And even going into the debate, we had one of our best prayer warriors in the room before with me. And going into that debate, I knew (the outcome of the debate) was not in my power, any way whatsoever. When I walked out, I looked at a woman who was with me and I said, ‘It’s because we have so many people praying for us that we are able to get our message out in the way that we have.’ … This is about our families. This is about protecting our children. This is about educating our kids. This is about bringing our communities back to a place of safety and filled with love.”
The scene reflected how religion and politics have often intermingled this year on the campaign trail in Michigan. Candidates in both parties were eager to gain the endorsements of prominent clergy and often visited houses of worship to drum up support in Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu communities, among other groups. The race comes at a time of national debate about the role faith should play in politics, with some raising questions about what they say is a rising Christian nationalism that threatens religious minorities. Others say such fears are overblown and unfairly attack Republicans.
Dixon, an evangelical Christian, and Gabbard, a former Democrat and the first Hindu to serve in Congress, campaigning together at a Catholic church led by immigrants illustrates their diversity, Republicans said.
“So many people are afraid with the cancel culture and the consequences of actually speaking the truth,” Gabbard, a former Democrat who recently began campaigning with Republicans, told Kalaj, praising his sermon. “We find the courage in the word of God. We find the courage within our own hearts.”
Campaigning in churches is a bipartisan tradition. On the same Sunday when Dixon was in a church, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, campaigned in three large Detroit churches with predominantly Black congregations: Greater Grace Temple, Second Ebenezer Church and Triumph Church. Benson thanked on Twitter each pastor “for welcoming us and joining in our call to vote for democracy!”
Also on that Sunday, Dixon, Republican attorney general nominee Matthew DePerno, and Republican secretary of state nominee Kristina Karamo spoke at a rally in Dearborn that was held in part to gain the support of the city’s Muslim population, some of which has expressed concern about Democratic support for certain books in public schools that conservatives say are sexually explicit.
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In addition, Bloomfield Hills Baptist Church in Bloomfield Township held a rally the same Sunday with other evangelical churches against Proposal 3, a statewide ballot measure that would protect abortion rights in Michigan.
A few days earlier, on Oct. 27, Whitmer came to Dearborn to speak at the annual banquet of the Arab American Political Action Committee, posing for a photo with two prominent Islamic leaders on either side of her, Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini of the Islamic Institute of America in Dearborn Heights and Imam Mohammad Elahi of the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn Heights. Whitmer has also frequented a number of different churches during the campaign, including large congregations such as St. John Armenian Orthodox Church in Southfield, Triumph Church in Detroit, and in Liberty Temple Baptist Church in Detroit, where she spoke to clerics in June about racism and threats to democracy at a meeting of the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity. In July, she received the endorsement of Church of God in Christ (COGIC) leaders in Michigan and leaders with some other Black denominations.
“Governor Whitmer is focused on continuing Michigan’s historic progress and Michiganders of all different faiths and communities are essential to that movement,” Whitmer spokeswoman Maeve Coyle told the Free Press. “The governor has partnered with faith organizations and community groups to bring people together from Monroe to Marquette and regularly worships with Michiganders of all denominations.”
There are about 470 religious leaders in Michigan who have endorsed Whitmer, representing a wide variety of faiths and denominations, according to a list from the campaign. They include mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Shia Muslim, Sunni Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu clergy, and represent a diverse group of races and ethnicities. Over the past month, Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Gilchrist have attended more than 45 worship services across the state. And they hosted a statewide clergy breakfast with about 350 faith leaders. Some conservatives have attacked Whitmer for shutting down churches in 2020 during the pandemic, but that claim is not accurate as she gave exemptions to all churches and other houses of worship when issuing stay-at-home orders.
“Governor Whitmer is proud to be endorsed by hundreds of religious leaders from across the state and will continue working to build a Michigan where every person can thrive,” Coyle said.
Dixon, who belongs to an evangelical church, has also been active in reaching out to faith communities. She has been more outspoken in talking about her faith publicly.
Dixon is a member of Forest Park Covenant Church in Norton Shores, which is part of the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination, founded in the late 19th century by immigrants from Sweden who broke off from the dominant Lutheran Church. The group says on its website it’s a multiethnic denomination that supports immigrants. Whitmer is also a Christian, according to the National Journal, a Washington research group. It’s unclear what denomination or church she may belong to; her office did not answer a question about her specific faith, but did answer other questions, providing information and a statement. Dixon’s campaign did not respond to questions from the Free Press about religion and her campaign.
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Speaking last week at St. Clair United Methodist Church in St. Clair, Dixon criticized Whitmer for using words like “hell” in her remarks and campaign messages. Whitmer often says she will fight like hell to protection abortion rights.
“I hear her on multiple occasions say she’s fighting like hell,” Dixon said at the rally, reported the Times Herald. “All of these terrible words. Well, we’re fighting with prayer, and that means we don’t need as much money as them because we have a lot more power behind us.”
Dixon also said religious beliefs have “a lot do to with how we view the world” and that conservatives “need to get Christians out” to vote.
Dixon has expressed support for Muslim protesters in Dearborn, and wished the Muslim community a blessed Ramadan in an April tweet, but has drawn criticism from leaders such as Elahi for attacking Islamic headscarves in a 2018 interview, calling them “oppressive garments. … This is not empowering.”
AG Nessel fears ‘big threat’ to non-Christians
In September, Attorney General Dana Nessel spoke at an Indian American cultural event in Livonia celebrating Diwali and Navratri, two holidays celebrated in the fall by Hindus and other groups. In remarks posted on Facebook that have drawn criticism from some Republicans, Nessel said that non-Christians face threats from the GOP.
“Let me talk about … a big threat to us here in this room and here in America,” Nessel said. “And those are people who are running for public office that believe … America is a Christian nation, and that we only have room for people who are Christians in this nation.”
Some Republicans criticized Nessel’s remarks, saying they were inappropriate for a cultural event and ruined the mood of the festive occasion.
“We witnessed AG Dana drop a Debbie Downer Bomb center stage,” wrote Ken Crider, a Republican State Senate candidate for the 6th District in parts of Detroit, Farmington Hills, Redford and Livonia. “This event was an upbeat, fun family event and AG Dana made a statement, after we were given an opportunity to speak, insinuating that there are people who only want Christians to live in the United States. … Republicans are fighting to preserve the Constitution, and we believe that America’s strength and beauty is derived from its acceptance of peoples from around the world combined with their faiths and cultures.”
Karamo said “Nessel is attempting to spread fear of Christians.”
Nessel’s campaign office did not reply to questions about her remarks, nor to other questions about religion and her campaign. Nessel, who is the first Jewish person to be Michigan Attorney General, has spoken previously about how her Jewish background informs her work.
“The values that we learned at my temple had a lot to do with empathy and compassion for all people, caring about people who were different and who had been ostracized in society in a lot of ways, much in the way that the Jewish community historically has,” Nessel told the Times of Israel in 2019 about her Jewish upbringing. “I’m the granddaughter of immigrants who fled World War II and fled the Holocaust and who were penniless and spoke no English and had no marketable skills, but they were allowed to come to this country, and just a few generations later, their granddaughter is the top lawyer in a state of 10 million people.”
Nessel has visited Dearborn several times in recent weeks, drawing derogatory attacks from some of the protesters in Dearborn who oppose LGBTQ books.
“Let’s get this drag queen out of office,” shouted Hassan Aoun, of Dearborn, about Nessel at the Oct. 30 Dearborn rally as DePerno addressed the crowd.
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DePerno also has spoken about faith communities at times, talking often to Arab Americans in Dearborn in recent weeks and joining protesters at a Dearborn Public Schools board meeting on Oct. 13 that drew 1,000 people, most of them opposed to the controversial books. If elected, DePerno may be the first Michigan Attorney General of Arab descent, saying Sunday that he is part Syrian. At the rally, Muslim and Christian speakers accused liberals of trying to divide their communities. Conservative Christians have played an active role in Dearborn in fomenting protests against LGBTQ-oriented books.
“Whether you are a Catholic, a Christian, a Muslim, a Chaldean, I stand with every single one of you,” DePerno said in Dearborn at a campaign rally. “In the early 1900s, my family were immigrants. They came to Michigan, because it provided opportunity. They came to Detroit, half my family from Italy, the other half of my family from Syria. So don’t tell me that I don’t stand with the Dearborn community.”
DePerno’s campaign did not respond to questions about religion and his campaign.
Karamo responds to ‘yoga is Satanic’ remarks
In recent months, Karamo has drawn attention for remarks she made a couple of years ago on podcasts, in which she railed against paganism, yoga, African religions, some Hindu gods and goddesses, Blacks Lives Matter, Beyoncé, Jay Z, and Cardi B, calling them Satanic.
With a master of arts in Christian apologetics from Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology, Karamo describes herself as a Christian apologist on her LinkedIn page. On her podcasts, Karamo suggests paganism and non-Christian beliefs are responsible for cultural decadence.
In an interview with the Free Press last month in Dearborn, Karamo said her remarks should be understood in their full context, and that she doesn’t hate any group.
Benson’s office did not respond to questions for this article.
“It was taken out of context,” Karamo said of her earlier comments. “I’m a Christian apologist. And one of the things we do is we discuss our objections to other religious beliefs. So that was not meant to disparage anybody. … I have friends who are Muslim, who are Buddhists, who are Hindu, they don’t agree with my Christian faith … I’m OK with the fact that they don’t agree with my religious beliefs. So I have nothing negative about any person. People have a right to practice their religious beliefs. And we also have a right to disagree with each other’s religious beliefs. And that’s just something that’s naturally going to come in a pluralistic society.”
She posted a tweet last month wishing a happy Diwali and attended a Hindu event this summer in Novi with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness that involves pulling a chariot known as Ratha Yatra. She recalls speaking with a man who said a Hindu sacred text changed his life.
“A couple of months ago, I went to a chariot festival, which was a Hindu festival in Novi,” Karamo said. “And I talked to a man who was really sharing with me how the Bhagavad Gita changed his life, and wanted me to come to one of his temples, and I appreciate him doing that. Because in that moment, I’ve talked to somebody who cared enough about me to share their faith, even though he knew I did not agree. And I said to him, ‘Well, I’m a Christian, so I have a different perspective.’ But I have so appreciated that he cared enough about me to share his faith with me, because he thought that it would benefit my life, the way it has benefited him. And I think that in America, we need to be OK with disagreeing with each other on religious matters, while still being friends and neighbors.”
The Times Herald contributed to this report.
Contact Niraj Warikoo: email@example.com or Twitter @nwarikoo