Evangelicals Weigh Electability Vs. Ideology
As Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum battle for South Carolina's conservative vote, evangelical Christians are being forced to consider sacrificing principle for practicality
It's been described as a battle for the Republican Party's very soul.
Everyone from the GOP leadership to foot-soldiers on the ground from Chesnee to Charleston badly want to defeat President Barack Obama in November.
But many members of a critical Palmetto State voting block — a large evangelical Christian community — aren't willing to sacrifice ideology for practicality.
They aren't yet willing to get behind frontrunner Mitt Romney, whom they don't trust for reasons ranging from his moderate voting record to his Mormon faith.
But despite belonging to the largest religious group in the state, their power play has been limited because they can't agree on which "conservative" candidate to back: Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry or Rick Santorum.
Javan Browder, a former Bachmann staffer who was the co-director of the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition, supports Santorum now, and senses that many Christians will shift toward the Santorum, as he has.
"I think people respect Rick Santorum as a man of faith and character, though they may not agree with him on the issues 100 percent," Browder said. "To me faith and character are the most important things to consider. To me it’s about realness."
"Of course my hope was that Michele Bachmann would come out on top in Iowa and we would all rally around her, but my prayer all along had been that it would be decisive either way and that at least one conservative would come out strong."
In a survey released Thursday by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life, evangelicals and Mormons shared many commonalities.
In a breakdown of the report by the Associated Press, white evangelicals and Mormons shared a commitment to family life, prayer, the Bible and conservative politics. Both groups also showed support for the Republican Party and in smaller government.
State GOP Executive Director Matt Moore told Patch in a November article titled, "Churches A Vibrant Part of S.C. Political Circuit," that religion is one of the many factors that help voters choose a candidate, but that the deciding factor is in how the candidate lives and leads.
"Certainly in a state like South Carolina, our strong evangelical community cannot be ignored," Moore said. "I've advised multiple presidential candidates to speak to those voters, and all voters, in their own voice. If you personally connect with voters, they are more likely to focus on the things you have in common, instead of the things that make you different."
Moore's remarks paint a vivid picture of what Romney has tried to do in this election year.
Romney has talked openly about the ideas that conservative Christians and Mormons share, unlike his bid for the presidential nomination in 2008 when he addressed his faith head-on, pointing out the differences in Mormonism and Christianity.
But he's not the first candidate to have to do so. In 1960, many voters were concerned John F. Kennedy, a practicing Catholic, would listen to the Pope, instead of the people.
However, Brad Atkins, president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, worries that committed Christians may likely vote for a candidate based on his ability to turn around the economy, rather than considering the candidates' values.
Atkins believes it would be similarly unfortunate for Christians to vote based upon practicality.
"Anytime you vote simply because of someone's realistic chance of winning, that's not a fair assessment of each candidate," Atkins said. "That's why it's so important evangelicals throughout the whole state, and people of faith, honestly pray about who they will vote for — look at all the candidates, and their total biographies, if you will. Take their history of service in office, family, faith, business."
Patch met Doris Forest of Greer at a Rick Perry event at Tommy's Ham House and she wasn't sure for whom she would cast her vote at the time, she liked Perry because of how he treated people and because of what he said.
"You can tell a lot about a person by how he treats people," Forest said. "He asked me to pray for him, not vote for him. That's what I'm here doing is to make an opinion about a person, study the situation. We need strong leadership and honesty above all else."
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose campaign has reportedly had conversations with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum about supporting him in the event he should drop out, is now beginning to pull away from Santorum in South Carolina, according to the newest poll.
Still, with Santorum's status as a bonafide social conservative, some hardline evangelicals in the state will be faced with the choice on Jan. 21 whether to vote strictly on their beliefs or meld their beliefs with the politically expedient strategy that another candidate may represent a better opportunity to stop Romney's momentum.
Dr. Oran Smith, president and CEO of the Palmetto Family Council, said that to a certain extent, there's no getting around political expediency in a political race.
"We should never sacrifice our core principles," Smith said. "But, we must ask which hills we are willing to die on. Is it a principle or a whim? All viable candidates are more conservative than Nelson Rockefeller or Richard Nixon."
Smith surmised that Gingrich, and even a faltering Rick Perry, have enough strength in their campaigns to prevent Santorum from rallying an evangelical base in the state as cohesively as he otherwise could. That doesn't change the fact that Santorum is squarely on the map due to his unabashed faith.
"For a number of evangelicals, particularly late-deciders who are not insiders — people who don't go to rallies or conventions or watch Fox News all day — Santorum's strong showing in Iowa put him on their radar screen really for the first time," Smith said.
Atkins said he's still researching the candidates and praying over his own decision as an undecided voter. He also said he's not sensed any groundswell in the evangelical community to indicate a shift toward any particular candidate.
"I think in the coming days, when all the candidates are coming down here, you'll hear more from them on a local level and on the state level, and I think a lot of South Carolinians, not just evangelicals, are still undecided at this time," Atkins said.
David Shirley, a Taylors resident and director at the Beaverdam Baptist Association in Oconee County, said that while Santorum may strengthen because of his unwavering stance on the place of Christian values in governance, there may simply be too much fracturing within the evangelical community to pose any real threat to Romney.
"I do see a greater possibility of Santorum being the evangelical choice, especially with (Michele) Bachmann dropping out and with Perry faltering," Shirley said. "Again, the problem will be the Christian vote being spread out among two or three candidates possibly leaving a moderate candidate, like McCain in 2008, as the winner."
For Shirley, who has listened to Perry, Gingrich and Bachmann speak in person, the question of practicality or ideology is really no question at all. He believes conservative America's rigorous attempt to foresee who may fare better against Obama didn't serve the country well nearly four years ago.
"As I stated, the conservative vote in 2008 was split, paving the way for a McCain victory. While the talking heads on TV and the various polls tell us which candidate they believe has the best chance of defeating President Obama in November, that has no bearing on me as a Christian casting my ballot," Shirley said. "I cast my ballot for the candidate whose policies line up with my Christian values."
If Santorum is to compete with Gingrich for the anti-Romney vote in South Carolina, he will have to convince evangelicals that he not only best represents their values, but is the most likely to carry those values all the way to the White House.