Evangelical vote key in South Carolina

Posted: January 19, 2012

COLUMBIA, S.C. - The likely Republican primary voters in the adult Bible study class at First Baptist Church have seen candidates' ads and devoured news coverage, but they listen most to a higher authority: God.

They worked through a lesson Sunday about the sanctity of human life, made in His image, discussing Genesis 1:27, snippets of Deuteronomy, and Matthew 5:17-24.

Although Southern Baptist churches observe the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision in this way every January, the timing was fortuitous, coming as it did right before Saturday's GOP presidential primary here.

Evangelical Christians have dominated Republican politics for decades in South Carolina, rated one of the most intensely religious states in the nation by the Gallup Poll, based on attendance at worship services. Four years ago, 60 percent of those who voted in the party's primary identified themselves as born-again Christians.

"Morality will be the deciding issue for me," said Adam Burger, 31, a computer programmer from nearby Lexington, S.C., and a member of First Baptist. "It's hard to trust someone who doesn't share your faith and values."

Right now, polls show that evangelicals are mostly split among former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry - but even front-runner Mitt Romney, the Mormon former Massachusetts governor with a reputation as a moderate, is getting a healthy share of such voters' support.

A CNN/Time poll of 505 likely South Carolina voters released Wednesday found that Romney was leading overall with 33 percent, including backing from 26 percent of the evangelicals surveyed. Gingrich, second overall, was the choice of 23 percent of evangelicals, to 20 percent for Santorum, 12 percent for libertarian Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and 9 percent for Perry. The survey, conducted Friday through Tuesday, had an error margin of plus or minus 4.5 percent.

Romney can win the state so long as the candidates competing to be the last conservative standing against him divide the evangelical vote, but he has been working hard to capture support. A brochure mailed to South Carolina voters features a photo of a prayerful Romney in coat and tie, his head bowed and eyes closed, along with a signed pledge to be true to "my faith" as president. It just doesn't say which one. Many Protestant evangelicals don't consider Mormons true Christians.

While the other candidates - except Paul, who does not dwell on religion - discuss their faith in Christ openly on the stump here and use biblical language, Romney generally keeps his rhetorical focus on President Obama, with general references to faith. But last week, a woman at a forum asked him bluntly whether, as a Mormon, he believed in "the divine saving grace of Jesus Christ." Romney said that he did.

Longtime Palmetto State politicos say they expect some camp or super PAC to highlight some of the more unorthodox tenets of Mormonism - which holds that a risen Christ spent time in North America and that God has separate male and female forms - in anonymous calls or fliers.

The state has a checkered history with the volatile mix of religion and politics. During a 1978 congressional race, for instance, Max Heller, the popular Democratic mayor of Greenville, seemed headed for victory over Republican Carroll Campbell. But Heller lost after push polls informed voters in the heavily evangelical district that Heller was a foreign-born Jew.

A third-party candidate popped up and made wild anti-Semitic speeches in district churches. Many believe that the man was put up to it by Lee Atwater, the prince of attack politics, who was then Campbell's adviser and later became infamous as the man who dreamed up the Willie Horton line of attack against Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.

Yet the colony of South Carolina was founded in 1670 with an explicit guarantee of religious tolerance - except for Catholics - and a Jewish merchant was State House speaker for years in the 1950s and '60s.

Today's evangelical voters themselves, based on interviews at First Baptist, look at the GOP race in nuanced ways and come to different conclusions, though almost all describe themselves as conservative.

Just over two centuries old, the 6,000-member megachurch in the center of this capital city hosted the meeting in 1861 at which South Carolina's leaders drafted the documents declaring they were leaving the Union, touching off the Civil War.

The original sanctuary involved remains, because, legend has it, Union Gen. William T. Sherman's troops burned a nearby Methodist church instead one day in 1865 after a crafty First Baptist custodian misdirected them.

"For me, this time it's Mitt Romney," said Mike Chase, 53, a lawyer and deacon of the church. "It's a change for me, mostly because I want to beat Obama."

Chase voted for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist preacher, in the 2008 primary and believes that Romney is the most competitive candidate the GOP has for the general election.

"Gov. Romney is not going to push his religious beliefs on me," Chase said, and he appreciates that Romney shares similar moral values despite his different faith.

Burger, the computer programmer, said he was "torn" between Santorum, who he said shares his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, and Romney, who seems most viable according to polls but had wavered on those issues in the past.

"I also know he is a Mormon and there are some conflicts with Christianity - I would have to study that some more," Burger said. But he wouldn't rule out Romney.

Melinda Timmerman, 47, of Blythewood, working in the church office, said her faith was central to her politics.

"My vote is extremely conservative," said Timmerman. "I've already been in great prayer for who God wants to be the next president." She was leaning toward Perry but was concerned the Texas governor was too far down in the polls. "I don't want to waste my vote, either," Timmerman said. She has ruled out Romney.

Not everyone at the church is a Republican. T. Houston Fitzpatrick 3d, an independent voter, said he backed Obama in 2008 and would again.

Fitzpatrick, 53, joked, "I'm your typical Obama supporter: a past Rotarian, a small-business man, a Baptist deacon." He said his commercial real estate business had dropped significantly from before the 2008 financial collapse.

"The banks are just not lending money," Fitzpatrick said. He blamed Republican lawmakers for refusing to work out policies with Obama that might help the situation.

"I'm tired of all the hooting and hollering," he said. "They need to stop saying no and try working together."

Contact politics writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com or @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/BigTent.

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