The evangelical dilemma in South Carolina: adulterer or Mormon?

For South Carolina conservatives, especially evangelical Christians, the 2012 campaign season is the year of magical rethinking. Look at the frontrunners:

If you want a president with a legacy of marital fidelity, you're going to have to work around Newt Gingrich's adultery.

If you believe that Mormons don't really qualify as Christian, you may find yourself struggling with Mitt Romney.

Of course, there's also Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. Then you just have to convince yourself either man can win; the probability fluctuates from week to week.

It's a schism that can be seen all over the state. I've seen it among my own kin, spread across the Carolinas and Tennessee, where certain ones among them have begun weighing the possibility that while the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is indeed a cult, maybe some Mormons can be Christians, and maybe the former Governor of Massachusetts is such a person.

Besides, what's the alternative? Four more years of The Barack and Michelle Show? Christian, please...

This is about as close to compromise as you can get in a family with deep roots in old-time religion and limited government, and which holds a general all-round disdain for Democrats in high office. Just last month, in fact, my Chattanooga cousin-in-law published a postmodern political treatise titled "Everything Obama Knows About the Economy." It consists of 150 blank pieces of paper, and proved to be quite the stocking stuffer.

The book's thesis would have no doubt resonated among the Republicans gathered in late December at Newt Gingrich's Town Hall rally at the Blue Marlin Restaurant in Columbia. But even here there was disagreement over just what to do about re-occupying the White House.

"I think it's ironic so many Christians want an adulterer to run the country," said college student Carl Maass, one of two protestors standing outside the roped-off area, holding a handmade sign that said "No Fat Cat Zone."

But for those eating shrimp and grits under the tents, this is no time for purism.

"When you start looking for perfection in a candidate, you don't have a candidate," said Karen Ruff. "You give it to Obama. And Newt has been very upfront about acknowledging he has made mistakes in the past. He's had to ask forgiveness for some things." (Not that that hasn't made him incredibly defensive about his mistakes, as witnessed during Thursday night's debate.)

The bigger question, given Romney's current vulnerability in the South Carolina primary, is whether a Mormon can ever gain traction in such an evangelical-heavy state. Will Folks, who made national headlines in 2010 when he became the first of two men to claim to have had an affair with married gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley, is skeptical. (Haley denied both accounts, went on to become the state's first female governor and recently endorsed Mitt Romney. The governor has since become a standard target on Folks' political blog.)

Haley was raised Sikh, a non-Abrahamic religion founded in the Punjab region, but now identifies as Christian she successfully weathered scrutiny of her conversion during her own election. Could Haley's circumstance mean an easier path Romney? Is it possible that his Mormon background ultimately will not be a factor among South Carolina evangelical conservatives?

"The question is, does that segment of the GOP carry the same clout that it once did?" Folks said over coffee. "For example, in 2000, I don't think a Mormon candidate would have even bothered to campaign in South Carolina, because it was the zenith of the Christian coalition. They have fallen off the map in subsequent elections. That Bible-thumping segment of the Republican electorate probably reached its nadir in the 2010 cycle."

Randy Page, an evangelical Christian, said the vast majority of Republicans will line up behind the nominee for obvious reasons. Giving the power of appointments and the bully pulpit back "to Obama and the liberal Democrats is not somewhere they want to go," he said.

Romney rolled into the state with a comfortable lead, but Gingrich's fiery performance in Thursday night's debate may push him to the win. The primary is upon us. As the song from the Broadway hit The Book of Mormon puts it, the only latter day is tomorrow.

Rodney Welch is a writer in South Carolina. He reviews books for the Free-Times in Columbia, S.C..

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