SHELBYVILLE — Republican David Williams tried to stir support Tuesday by criticizing Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear for taking part in a Hindu "ground blessing" ceremony last week for a new India-based employer in Elizabethtown.
"He's there participating with Hindu priests, participating in a religious ceremony," Williams said during a campaign stop in Shelbyville. "He's sitting down there with his legs crossed, participating in Hindu prayers with a dot on his forehead with incense burning around him. I don't know what the man was thinking."
Beshear's campaign spokesman called Williams' remarks "pathetic and desperate."
"Gov. Beshear is proud that 250 new jobs are coming to Elizabethtown," campaign spokesman Matt Erwin said in a statement.
Williams' comments show that "he's frustrated because he's so far behind" in the race for governor, said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Recent polling shows Williams, the state Senate president from Burkesville, and independent Gatewood Galbraith of Lexington trailing Beshear by a wide margin.
"He's got to roll the dice now, so he is bringing up religion," Sabato said.
National Hindu spokesman Rajan Zed issued a statement Tuesday night decrying Williams' "dragging of a Hindu ceremony ... into an electoral battle for governor's race in Kentucky."
"Kentucky governorship candidate David Williams should apologize for the reported comments about the Hindu ceremony, because if elected on November eighth, he would be the governor of all Kentuckians, including Hindu Kentuckians," the release said.
Beshear's office issued a news release Friday that said the governor joined community leaders and Flex Films officials to take part in a ground-blessing ceremony in preparation for the flexible-packaging company's first U.S. manufacturing plant. It said the project stemmed from Beshear's first economic-development trip to India last fall.
The Flex Films project involves at least 250 new jobs and a $180 million capital investment in Kentucky, Beshear's office said. The news release described the blessing ceremony as "a traditional service in India for new homes, businesses or other facilities."
"To show partnership in the new endeavor, both Flex Films executives and state and local officials participated in the ceremony," the release said.
The News-Enterprise of Elizabethtown reported Sunday that Beshear "sat cross-legged on a white cushion for an hour in what may be the first bhoomi poojan ceremony held in Kentucky" to celebrate the Flex Films investment.
The newspaper said the ceremony "was conducted in a pit prepared at the site of the new manufacturing plant in the T.J. Patterson Industrial Park.
"For more than an hour, guests observed the traditional Indian blessing through a haze created by burning incense and a ceremonial fire," the newspaper said. "A handful of participants, including Beshear and Elizabethtown Mayor Tim Walker, sat cross-legged and shoeless on cushions while a priest chanted Hindu prayers. At the end of the ground blessing, participants shoveled the newly blessed earth into a hole at the site."
Williams, a Methodist, brought up the ceremony to about 30 supporters Tuesday morning at Andriot's paint store in downtown Shelbyville.
Williams said Beshear could have attended the ground-breaking ceremony without participating in the religious portion of the event.
"If I'm a Christian, I don't participate in Jewish prayers. I'm glad they do that. I don't participate in Hindu prayers. I don't participate in Muslim prayers. I don't do that," Williams later told reporters. "To get down and get involved and participate in prayers to these polytheistic situations, where you have these Hindu gods that they are praying to, doesn't appear to me to be in line with what a governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky ought to be doing."
Williams said he was not showing disrespect to Hindus with his comments.
"I think you disrespect other people's religion when you go down there," he said.
He said he has visited countries that had Hindu ceremonies but declined to participate. "That would be idolatry," he said.
Williams added that Beshear has said in his campaign ads that he is the son and grandson of Baptist ministers.
"Yet between his not being pro-life and his support for gambling and now getting down and doing Hindu prayers to these Hindu gods, I think his grandfathers wouldn't be very pleased with Steve Beshear," Williams said.
Elizabethtown Mayor Tim C. Walker said via email that he was shocked by Williams' comments.
"Here in Elizabethtown, we were very happy that Flex Films is locating here, and I was pleased to participate in the blessing ceremony," Walker said. "It did not compromise my faith, and it's despicable to suggest that we should not welcome this company and their investment."
John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who focuses on religion in politics, said he will be "very surprised" if Beshear's participation in the Hindu ceremony changes the outcome of Tuesday's election.
He said it is common for a candidate to try to distinguish himself on religious grounds by criticizing his opponent.
"Historically, such accusations were often effective because it was important for candidates to be in the mainstream, but there is evidence in recent times that Christian groups have become less sensitive to them because Americans are becoming more diverse," Green said. "Some Christians may react negatively to Beshear for this, but I think the total impact will be much less than Mr. Williams hopes for, especially since Beshear's action was tied with the creation of jobs."
Green said that Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul's religion was questioned in last year's U.S. Senate race by Democratic challenger Jack Conway.
"That certainly was not a successful move for the Democrat," Green said.