COLUMBIA, SC — We went to church Sunday, hoping to track down Newt Gingrich’s sisters. They’d been dispatched there to bolster his evangelical following on “Sanctity of Human Life Day.” With the state’s Republican Party primary a week away, every vote is crucial.
First though, we found lingering echoes of another conflict, a far bigger one.
A small, bow-legged marble-topped table stood in the “history hallway” of First Baptist Church of Columbia. But if not for the velvet pedestal and plaque, no one would guess that South Carolina’s secession papers were signed on top of it, 150 years ago.
Local legend claims that the church’s original inner sanctuary survived the war unscathed thanks to a successful misdirection— Union troops torched the wrong building — and the church itself celebrated its biennium two years ago. The Sunday service that we attended is now next door to the original sanctuary, in an immense, three-story mega church space that’s engulfed the older building and captured a whole block of the city center.
One might think the birthplace of the Confederacy would be rooted in old prejudices, but one of its dapper deacons, Rick Jones, explained that is not so. A 30-year member of the church who works as an usher and door greeter, Jones was proud to to tell us about the church’s extensive Sunday-school class program, including courses for those with special needs.
A fellow usher and greeter who asked not to be named similarly extolled the congregation’s diversity, contrasting its composition with churches of upstate South Carolina.
They’re really conservative up there, this person said.
But perhaps all things are relative in political sensibilities. Wesley Donehue, a former Michele Bachmann staffer and top GOP consultant in the state who attends First Baptist, told us “This is one of the most conservative churches in the state. … Not to say that there aren’t any outliers, because there are definitely some Democrats and liberals who come, but I would say by far, [the congregation runs from] conservative to very conservative.”
But back to our mission. We found Gingrich’s half-sisters, Susan Gingrich and Roberta Brown, upstairs in a “Sanctity-of-Life” themed Sunday school lesson. The small, modern-looking room was mostly full and a few reporters hugged the wall. The sisters listened quietly as the woman lay-minister asked the audience to consider the value of a human life, paying no mind to the photographer crouching in the aisle, snapping away. The teacher concluded with a reference to NFL quarterback Tim Tebow (who later got mentioned from the pulpit, too), and everyone bowed their heads in prayer before dispersing to the main service.
Susan told us she enjoyed the Sunday School class, and said she was surprised and pleased to see a woman do the teaching. She said that in in Harrisburg, Penn., her home church — East Shore Baptist — only allows men to preach to mixed company and single-sex audiences. This was a nice change of pace for her, or a nice surprise, as she put it, adding that she was excited to pitch the notion back in Harrisburg.
The women were visible but they didn’t do much politicking. Susan did most of the talking and Roberta quietly migrated alongside her.
The televised service that followed was led by Dr. Wendell Estep, and backed by a 200-person, blue-robed choir with two television screens. The sermon was on fasting — the act of going periods of time without food in order to sharpen one’s spiritual sense — and how this practice was far more common in the 1800s during times of national crisis. The setting seemed appropriate.