The national media like to cite the fact that a majority of Iowa Republican caucus-goers are evangelical or born-again Christians (57 percent this year) as evidence that Iowa is a bastion of social conservatism. In South Carolina, evangelical Protestants account for not just a majority of Republican voters: they are a majority of religiously active residents in the state. And not all evangelicals are the same. There is a depth and intensity to the social conservatism here. And the candidates are behaving accordingly. They aren’t changing their positions, but they are offering religious frames and justifications for them. After hearing constantly about jobs and the budget deficit, we’re starting to hear a lot more about morality, family and values.
If you drive west on Route 378 from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to the State Capitol in Columbia, you’ll pass more churches than businesses. These aren’t mega-churches in the feel-good Rick Warren mold, with their Christian rock bands and squishy environmentalism. These are typically small, plain white buildings, not much larger than the trailers and ranch houses that surround them, with modest signs advertising their Baptist or Methodist faith. This isn’t the suburban West; it’s the rural South. The gospel churches here preach is old-time religion. In the words of a lifelong resident of the region, “It’s fire and brimstone: repent or you’ll burn in Hell.”
Stop at a convenience store in Marion County, near the Pee Dee River, and you’ll see a few unusual signs. One, in the parking lot, warns that alcohol consumption is prohibited and adds “No Profanity.” (The sign says that the parking lot is under the supervision of the Marion County Police Department. A web search by this reporter could not ascertain what the penalty is for getting caught swearing in a convenience store parking lot.) In the men’s room you might find a strange admonishment on the condom dispenser: Hygeia Corp of Kannapolis, North Carolina, warns you that while they’ll sell you a condom for four quarters, the best way to avoid contracting HIV is to abstain from sex until marriage and to be monogamous within marriage.
Rick Santorum, a staunch social conservative who won a tie victory with Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucus, is not doing as well here. Polls show Santorum barely beating Ron Paul for third place. Religion, normally Santorum’s strength, may actually be the reason. “I think Santorum would be doing better if he weren’t a Catholic,” says one South Carolina political insider. Even Santorum supporters admit it could be a hurdle for him. “I’m sure here in the Deep South [Santorum’s Catholicism] would be an issue for some people,” said Al Phillips, who attended a Santorum town hall in Spartanburg on Wednesday. It’s possible that one reason Newt Gingrich is outpacing Santorum for second place is that many South Carolina Republicans may not know Gingrich converted to Catholicism when he married his third wife, Callista.
Nonetheless, Santorum is milking the religion and family values angle for all it’s worth. In Spartanburg he bent over backward to tie his renewed interest in moral values to the economic issues the campaign has focused on until now. “I talked about the importance of marriage and the family to our economy,” said Santorum. “People need to see the economy is inextricably linked to the strength of the family.”