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.”
Asked about drug policy Santorum nearly called for the reinstatement of the Volstead Act. Usually people invoke the nation’s miserable experience with Prohibition to argue for legalizing drugs. Santorum points to the fact that alcohol consumption declined under Prohibition to argue that legalizing drugs would lead to more drug use. “Legalizing alcohol was something that probably should have happened, but legalizing alcohol means more alcoholics,” said Santorum. “I absolutely oppose any legalization or liberalization of our drug laws,” he declared to applause.
Santorum does not think drugs should be illegal and users thrown in prison merely because it will protect the health of potential drug users. He explicitly argues that the law should make a moral statement against intoxication. “Morality is reflected through our laws,” said Santorum. And, of course, it all comes back to the same theme. Santorum blames drug abuse on the scourge of out-of-wedlock childbirth, noting that most drug offenders, like most prisoners in general, grew up with absentee fathers. Clearly, Santorum is unacquainted with the difference between causation and correlation. “If you want to do something about the drug problem, we’re going to have to do something about faith and family,” he said.
When Santorum was asked about gay marriage on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, his answer focused on the question of child rearing and promoting traditional marriage. In South Carolina, his reasons seem to come from a different place. “My duty as a Christian is to respect every individual,” insisted Santorum, a religious spin on his usual effort to inoculate himself against charges of homophobia. But, he was sure to add, “We can’t redefine what God has created.”
At the Personhood USA forum in Greenville, South Carolina, home of the infamous Bob Jones University, the candidates framed their staunch opposition to abortion rights in religious terms. Whereas usually the Republican candidates talk solely about their scientific belief that a fetus is a person, they all brought up religion at the Wednesday night event.
“The Obama administration is trying to impose its secular values on a country that deeply opposes it,” said Newt Gingrich in his introductory remarks. “With aggressive articulate leadership we could have a cultural revival.” When asked later about human cloning, Gingrich said, “This may be first time since leaving the Garden of Eden that we may have to address, What does it mean to be human? The greatest of all sins is playing God.”
Rick Perry reiterated his preposterous assertion that “this administration is in a war against religion.” Even Ron Paul uncharacteristically invoked the importance of “family and morality” in “solving our problems.” He also called for eliminating all federal funding for contraception and hospitals on the grounds that the organizations receiving the money may also provide abortions and thus is abortion is being indirectly subsidized.
Gingrich and Santorum have been battling over the support of religious and social conservative activists. On Saturday a group of 150 social conservative leaders gathered to pick a candidate and emerged on Sunday with an answer: Rick Santorum. It was a bad break for Gingrich, considering that on their first ballot he had lagged Santorum by only nine votes, fifty-seven to forty-eight. The Gingrich campaign did their best to put a positive spin on the event, blasting out a press release titled “150 Christian Leaders Unanimous in Their Support for Not-Romney.” Gingrich has continued to trumpet his own handful of endorsements from fire-breathing religious conservatives, such as Left Behind author Timothy LaHaye.
Meanwhile, Ron Paul is aggressively recruiting anti-gay pastors. At times since 2008 it has appeared that the religious right has been subjugated to the fiscal conservatism of the Tea Party movement. But that’s just the face Republicans present to swing voters. If you want to see the real Republican Party, listen to what the candidates have to say in South Carolina.