COLUMBIA — Newt Gingrich’s dramatic come-from-behind victory in South Carolina last night was driven by a lot of factors. But one of the most important was the “evangelical vote,” which went for Gingrich two-for-one over Mitt Romney.
Evangelicals are a still a potent political force in American politics, if Saturday’s primary was any indication. They compose some 65 percent of the electorate in South Carolina, and they seemed to have rallied behind Gingrich following Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s endorsement of him on Thursday.
But just who are this oft-cited chunk of South Carolinians who self-identify as evangelicals?
They’re people like Matthew Saxon, 27, a first-year M.Div. student at Columbia International University, a conservative ecumenical seminary based in Columbia. He attends Shandon Baptist Church, also in Columbia, where he teaches Sunday school.
Saxon’s a general manager at a branch of a local Southwestern-themed-fast-food chain, Moe’s, located near the University of South Carolina’s campus near downtown. He’s married and has two young kids.
And he’s frustrated.
Motivated by the same issues, but not monolithic
On a break from assembling burritos behind the counter at Moe’s last week, Saxon reflected on what motivates him, and other evangelicals.
He said that they are “not monolithic, especially with this election,” but instead represent a diverse coalition of Bible-based beliefs, all focused on outreach to new potential believers.
An evangelical is “someone who regards the Bible as inspired and whose belief in Christ governs their life,” he said. Other kinds of Christians, such as Catholics, can be “evangelical,” too, in that sense.
“Your political views should be informed by your spiritual beliefs,” he said, pausing carefully before speaking.
He said that he is discouraged by how evangelical Christians are often portrayed in popular culture as narrow-minded, anti-intellectual and uncultured.
Evangelicals are thought of as obsessively focused on “values” issues, he said. But he sees his opposition to abortion as part of a holistic perspective that is motivated by compassion for the poor, sick and disenfranchised, including immigrants.
“Social justice is something the Bible is very concerned with,” he said, arguing that unbridled capitalism is antithetical to his faith. “It’s something Christians should stand up against.”
In regards to healthcare, “there’s gotta’ be some humanity when it comes to that issue,” he said. It’s not black and white, and there’s room for debate there, he added, along with a “Gospel motivation” that means that society should take care of its poor. Being pro-life does not mean concern for life should end at birth, he said.
Abortion and the South’s “spiritual ecology”
Michael Henderson, the head pastor at Columbia’s Cayce United Methodist Church, said that for many evangelicals, abortion is the “bridge issue” that unites what can be a fractious group. Henderson and his friend and fellow Methodist minister, Brad Gray, who pastors Greene Street United Methodist Church, said that claiming the “evangelical” label can have political repercussions.
Both have congregations that lean a bit to the left, Henderson’s more so.
They think of themselves as evangelicals theologically, sharing Saxon’s concern for social-justice issues, but “when the news media says, ‘the evangelical vote,’ I look at that and I don’t consider myself an ‘evangelical,’” Gray said.
Neither pastor preaches politics from the pulpit, since they want to keep their flocks’ attention directed on more important worries, like helping the homeless or acting environmentally responsible, as “good stewards” of the Earth.
“There is no ‘evangelical bloc’ voting like there was in the 1980s,” Gray said. “The religious right is not rallied together for a common cause,” at least not often.
“By the end of the 1980s, they had realized that they hadn’t really brought in the kingdom,” Henderson added. “What they found eventually was disappointment.”
Still, South Carolina is like several states in the American South that are “culturally Christian,” in their words.
“People think of South Carolina as being a highly religious state,” Henderson said. “Just about everybody here is a member of a church,” at least nominally, somewhere, and the culture is “Christian,” but not everyone is very involved, he said.
Oran Smith is president of the Palmetto Family Council, a conservative advocacy group that’s part of a network of 40 other such groups across the country. He says that the state’s diverse evangelical culture means that “the culture war has not come to South Carolina. Christian evangelicals here…don’t feel as threatened” as in other places.
With the fading of the power of the Christian Coalition, evangelicals have turned grassroots, relying on groups like Smith’s and homeschoolers for momentum and organizing power, he said. Several campaigns, including Rick Santorum’s, used them effectively in get-out-to-vote operations driven by a keen desire to be a part of the political process.
These are hard-core, really engaged Protestant evangelicals.
But there’s also a significant chunk of southern society that is, again, culturally Christian but essentially uninvolved in church, Smith said. These “social Christians” are seeded through society.
Active efforts to unite over opposition to abortion, and in support of traditional definitions of marriage, continue to connect all but the most left-leaning Christians here, he said. These issues are especially important in connecting conservative Catholics (like Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich) with Protestants.
Back in Washington, an evangelical “frontier”
Closer to home, in Washington state, Joseph Backholm, the director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington (part of the same national network as Smith’s), agrees that in both states, evangelicals are united by passionate positions on abortion and marriage.
Our state, especially in its western half, doesn’t have the same evangelical anchors as South Carolina, nor the traditions, regarding religion.
“They [the South Carolinian evangelicals] absorb Christianity through osmosis. Here, everyone is steeped in the secular,” Backholm said.
As a result, Washington is more at the national forefront of more cultural conflict over the legalization of gay marriage, which his group opposes.
“Nationally, that trend is not going to go away. In the coming years, [we] will see more people galvanized around the issues that we’re dealing with now, whether it be the marriage issue or the life issue.”
Backholm says that this shared galvanization means that evangelicals can and often still do act like a voting “bloc,” even if it can be a diverse one in terms of denominational composition.
“It wouldn’t be accurate to say that you can move them all with a decree from on high. But there’s enough uniformity of worldview between them that they land on the same choice,” he said.
That same choice can still make a big impact on elections, in the South and elsewhere.
In South Carolina Saturday night, evangelicals voters remained a big enough bloc, despite their diversity of dedication and ideological orientation, to push Gingrich over the top, and they still helped Rick Santorum get some 17 percent of the vote. Nearly as many of them went for Santorum — 21 percent — as went for Romney.
“It’s very important to not give alliance to a political party, but to give allegiance to ideas,” Backholm said. “One thing that binds faith communities is [the belief] that God makes the rules,” he said. “We are subject to someone bigger than us.”