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SC evangelicals surprise in GOP primary

By:  Andrew Doughman
Votes of religious base split among candidates

Evangelical voters went to the polls this past week and overwhelmingly put their faith in twice-divorced Newt Gingrich, who has been censured for an ethics violation in Congress and has admitted to a past extramarital affair.

“There's much in his background that would suggest that he would not be the most likely candidate for evangelicals,” said Dan Mathewson, a professor of religious studies at Wofford College.

So what's going on here?

Voters had a choice between four main candidates: Gingrich, the former House Speaker, Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, Rick Santorum, former senator from Pennsylvania, and Ron Paul, Texas congressman.

Both Gingrich and Santorum are Catholics. Romney is Mormon and Paul, the fourth-place finisher, is Baptist.

“They (voters) basically had to decide between two Catholics and a Mormon, and those are two groups who, in the past, evangelical groups have been very suspicious of,” said Jim Guth, a political science professor who studies religion and politics at Furman University. “The very fact that a Catholic won is in some ways a very interesting result. … There's increasing willingness on the part of evangelical Protestants to look beyond at least some of the old religious divides, at least for Catholics.”

Faith enters into the political fray because evangelical voters comprise more than 60 percent of primary voters in South Carolina, a huge chunk of the electorate that candidates cannot ignore.

But religion and faith issues weren't the primary issues for most voters this year.

Voters in South Carolina consistently said the economy, the federal deficit and a candidate's ability to beat Democratic president Barack Obama in the general election were the salient factors when they picked a candidate.

Polls taken earlier this month indicated that voters believed Romney and Gingrich had the best chances to beat Obama.

“If you've got two candidates who are equal in every other respect — one is a flawed Catholic and one is someone who most evangelicals would not consider a Christian — you're going to pick the person who is closest in faith with you who you think can win, and that person was Gingrich,” said Trevor Rubenzer, a political science professor at USC Upstate. “Faith wasn't the main screener; it was the tiebreaker.”

If it had been the main issue, the results might have been different.

A group of evangelical leaders met in Texas earlier this month and declared that they would support Santorum, a devout Catholic who has been the most outspoken among the Republican candidates about his opposition to gay marriage and abortion.

Most evangelical voters did not follow the advice of these leaders. Santorum finished third in South Carolina.

While there are many evangelical voters in the Upstate region, they don't vote in a bloc.

Evangelicals are a coalition with no formal leadership. They could be fundamentalist Southern Baptists, charismatic Pentecostals, neo-evangelicals in the style of Billy Graham, among others, Mathewson said.

The term itself is indeterminate. It's a broad-brush word for Christians who actively share the gospel, and academics aren't settled on who's in and who's out.

In exit polls, people choose to identify as an evangelical; pollsters do not put them in that category.

“You can get lots of people who are very different from each other answering the same question with ‘yes,' ” Rubenzer said.

They tend to be united on a few key social issues such as opposition to gay marriage and abortion, but otherwise fray when it comes to other matters.

“They are not as simplistic on a whole as people think they are in public discourse,” Mathewson said. “People talk about them like they're only concerned about one or two things.”

They're not.

Given the choice, evangelicals might choose a devout Southern Baptist peanut farmer from Georgia over a movie star from California. But most conservative, evangelical voters would probably say they like Ronald Reagan more than Jimmy Carter.

South Carolina voters also chose John McCain over Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, in the 2008 primary.

Although the state does boast many evangelical voters, its long-running record in predicting the eventual nominee may stem more from practicality than finding the most evangelical candidate.

“South Carolina voters have been more interested in finding the candidate who they think can win nationally,” Mathewson said.

The winner of the South Carolina Republican primary has become the Republican nominee in every race since 1980.