Does Bobby Jindal’s college experience of witnessing a friend’s “exorcism” doom his chances to become Mitt Romney’s running mate? If he were picked, would it overshadow everything else about him?
Robert Mann, a longtime staffer for Louisiana Democrats and now a communications professor at Louisiana State University, wrote a June blog post with the headline “Why Bobby Jindal won’t be Mitt Romney’s running mate, in one word: Exorcism.” Jindal, Mann wrote, “cannot exorcise the fact that he participated in a quirky religious ritual that — if he were on the ticket with Romney — would draw a great deal of negative and very unwelcome attention to Romney’s Mormon faith.”
As the buzz about Jindal’s chances of being second on the ticket has increased, Mann has been joined by others. Washington Post blogger Chris Cillizza wondered in a post last week if Jindal had “too many known unknowns” in his past, including “his participation in what some have described as an exorcism during his college years.” Time’s Alex Altman mentioned the incident and wrote that “without casting any aspersions on Jindal’s beliefs, it’s safe to say that Romney — who has dealt with an undercurrent of bigotry toward his own faith — likely wants to avoid a protracted discussion of religious practices that would overshadow his focus on the economy.”
If Jindal is selected, his experience will no doubt be a focus, an obsessive one, among commentators on a certain cable channel. For most voters, however, Jindal’s views on the economy, spending, and other issues should trump any discomfort they feel about an incident he was involved in two decades ago.
“I don’t see it as anything other than exactly what the article purports to be, which is a description of somebody who was dealing with some aspect of a health issue and spiritual warfare,” comments one prominent conservative Christian, referring to Jindal’s 1994 article about the incident in the New Oxford Review. “It’s a fairly clinical description. He doesn’t really embrace any particular theology with regard to what happened, or come to any hard conclusions. I don’t view it as anything that would be a major issue in any campaign, much less a presidential general election in which he might be the vice-presidential nominee.”
For anyone who did try to make a big deal about the incident, the attempt “would backfire,” the source adds, comparing it to the media storm over Bob McDonnell’s master’s thesis in the 2009 Virginia gubernatorial election. McDonnell weathered the uproar and won the election.
“I think he should just be very straightforward about it,” says Mark Corallo, a Republican communications adviser, who emphasizes that people are aware that the Catholic Church performs exorcisms.
Jindal doesn’t say that what he witnessed was an exorcism. He speculates instead that he might have seen “spiritual warfare.” (And, though he was already Catholic at the time of the incident, Jindal makes no mention of any Catholic priest being present.) In the article, Jindal writes about watching a close friend, whom he calls Susan, fall apart at a Christian prayer meeting. She “emitted some strange guttural sounds and fell to the floor” and “started thrashing about, as if in some sort of seizure.” Jindal, joining the students who remained with Susan, prayed some of the time and at other moments simply observed as she uttered profanities and cursed God. After a crucifix and a Bible were brought near her, she was suddenly relieved of whatever had been distressing her. Jindal concludes modestly, writing, “Did I witness spiritual warfare? I do not have the answers, but I do believe in the reality of spirits, angels, and other related phenomena that I can neither touch nor see.”
In political discussions about Jindal’s article, over 5,000 words long, it is generally reduced to his “exorcism experience,” without any attention paid to his careful language and conclusion. Quin Hillyer, a Louisiana native who worked for Louisiana Republican congressman Robert Livingston in the Nineties, thinks that Jindal’s experience won’t be a problem if it is understood in its fuller context.
“Here is a guy who was (a) in college, (b) was not an instigator of this exorcism but was pulled in reluctantly and (c) was trying to help a very dear friend,” comments Hillyer, now a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom and a senior editor for The American Spectator. “And who, on top of that, wrote about it very sensitively. I think if the American people hear this story, and actually read what he wrote, they will say this is a very thoughtful, compassionate person.”
Still, Jindal hasn’t had to face significant media attention about the incident before. In Louisiana — a red state where many are religious — there has never been intense speculation about it.
A Louisiana Republican political veteran says that when Jindal ran for governor in 2003, the matter was discussed at the “political-chattering-class bubbling level.” But he doesn’t recall it being covered by the local mainstream media, although he thinks it may have received minor coverage when Jindal was preparing for his 2007 gubernatorial race. “So it never really came up, except, I guess, toward the end of campaigns. You know how you see everybody throws their oppo book at you at the last minute when they’re already dying. It came out then. [It] really wasn’t talked about that much. [The Jindal campaign] did an effective job of just sort of ignoring it and not giving it oxygen.”
Lanny Keller, an editorial writer for the Baton Rogue Advocate, points out that scrutiny of the incident by the national media will be a new experience for Jindal, who, he says, “has had really a very soft time in Louisiana in terms of negative press.” (Keller, for his part, has publicly written about his disagreements with Jindal’s policies.)
Jindal’s reputation in Louisiana, Keller adds, is of someone who cares and thinks about religion. “He has always had a lively personal interest in theology,” Keller remarks, noting that evangelical friends have told him that Jindal comes off as “very knowledgeable” when discussing theological matters. “In other words, in light of his past career, was this article as oddball as it sounds? Not really.”
It is likely that, no matter how the experience ultimately plays, there will be a media firestorm about it initially if Jindal becomes Romney’s running mate. But Corallo, while conceding that the “secular Left” might assume “they could make an issue of it,” doubts Jindal would be hurt by scrutiny of the matter.
“I don’t think the average American is going to think twice about it,” he says. “They’re going to look at a guy who has been one of the best, if not the best, governor[s] Louisiana has had in the modern era.”