SHELBYVILLE, Ky. – In a Bible Belt state that is home to the Creation Museum and a Noah's Ark-themed park in the works, the sight of Kentucky's Democratic governor taking part in a Hindu-style groundbreaking ceremony was easy pickings for his Republican challenger. Even if the event marked the construction of a $180 million manufacturing plant promising 250 jobs.
"He's sitting down there with his legs crossed participating in Hindu prayers, with a dot on his forehead with incense burning around him," Republican nominee David Williams said of Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear while campaigning Tuesday, a week before Kentucky's Nov. 8 election. "I don't know what the man was thinking."
Williams said it was OK to attend but suggested Beshear's participation in the traditional ground-blessing ceremony on Oct. 28 was an act of idolatry, or the worship of idols.
Williams, who has trailed the incumbent badly in polls, said Beshear's participation "doesn't seem to be in line with what most Kentuckians would approve of."
Beshear's campaign responded that the governor was proud of the jobs being created by the India-based company. The incumbent's campaign denounced the attack by Williams, the state Senate president.
"These are pathetic and desperate remarks by a candidate facing devastating poll numbers," Beshear campaign spokesman Matt Erwin said.
Williams and independent candidate Gatewood Galbraith are challenging Beshear in the Nov. 8 election. Recent polls show Beshear leading by more than 30 percentage points to win a second term.
Beshear is the son of a Baptist preacher and his administration offered tax incentives worth more than $40 million to attract a planned biblical theme park that will include a full-size replica of Noah's Ark.
A recent state news release said Beshear took part in the blessing ceremony with community leaders and officials of Flex Films, which plans to build the manufacturing plant in Elizabethtown. The company's products include polyester chips, specialty films, and inks and adhesives for packaging and printing machines.
State officials characterized it as a traditional service in India for new homes, businesses or other facilities. It said state and local officials participated in a show of partnership with company executives.
The News-Enterprise of Elizabethtown first reported Sunday on the ceremony. In photos and a video that accompany the story, the governor, is shown wearing a suit and tie and seated on the floor among 12 others. A larger crowd watches from seats along the perimeter.
John Stratton Hawley, a Barnard College professor who specializes in religion in India, said it sounded like a ceremony that is common in India for someone establishing his or her home. While the ceremony in India is religious, hosts often invite neighbors of other faiths to participate, Hawley said. He compared the ceremony to a Christian saying grace in a new home.
"He observed the etiquette of his hosts and he accepted their offer that he be a part of their home," Hawley said of Beshear. In that context, he said the forehead mark could have a range of meanings, from cultural to religious.
Williams maintained that the ceremony was contrary to his beliefs as a Methodist Christian.
"I've been in many countries, in Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and they'll say clap your hands and it summons the gods," Williams said. "I did not do that because that is idolatry. And that's what he (Beshear) participates in when he does that."
This is the second straight Kentucky campaign in which religion has become an issue.
In last year's U.S. Senate race, Democrat Jack Conway ran a TV ad that focused on allegations that Republican opponent Rand Paul was affiliated during college with a group that mocked Christianity and worshipped a god he called "Aqua Buddha." Paul, who went on to win the election, called the ad false and denounced it as gutter politics.