Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has slipped in recent polls in South Carolina, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has gained ground. The conventional wisdom about Romney was that he would fare poorly in the state where a great many Republican voters are evangelical Christians because Romney is seen as a social moderate.
In a gym at the Forestville Baptist Church, a serving line was set up outside the kitchen door Wednesday evening. Church members served chicken and green beans. The church lies in the western part of South Carolina. Many Baptist churches have fellowship suppers on Wednesdays and this one drew nearly 60 church members.
Pastor Rob Jackson says he tells his congregation of more than a thousand people to vote for a candidate with a Christian moral code — and for Jackson, that is not Mitt Romney, because, "from a biblical standpoint," Jackson said, "whether you’re a Mormon or an evangelical believer, there’s no question that both belief systems at their core believe God is the originator of life, so it greatly concerns me that Mitt Romney could be pro-choice if he really says he’s a Mormon."
When Romney was governor, he supported Roe v. Wade, giving women the right to an abortion. Now he says he’s pro-life. Jackson says Romney has not done a good enough job explaining why he changed his mind.
Others at this church supper expressed similar doubts about Romney’s conservative social credentials, including Molly Withers, a graduate student.
"To be 100 percent honest, the ideal candidate would be a moral man who professes Christ as his savior," said Withers, over a plate of chicken and salad. "And that’s the biggest problem I have with Mitt Romney. He has a strong stance on most of the arguments that I definitely agree with and he’s a very moral man — I don’t want to decrease that — however, he is a Mormon and I disagree with his religious beliefs."
This distrust of Mormons is not an uncommon belief among evangelical Christians, which make up more than 50 percent of likely Republican voters in South Carolina. Evangelicals spread the word of Jesus Christ and accept him as their savior.
"There’s a huge difference between a biblical Christian and a Mormon," said Rev. Brad Atkins, president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, which is made up of more than 670,000 members. "When you look at the definition of biblical Christianity, when you look at what other leaders have said as far as Mormonism compared to Christianity, there is no connection between the two, other than they draw their basis from the Old Testament, just as we do."
But, he continues, because Mormonism adds the Book of Mormon it deviates from biblical Christianity. This view is by no means universal among evangelicals. And Mormons consider themselves Christians and believe Christ is their savior.
In the Republican race, Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum are Catholic, Rep. Ron Paul is Baptist. All three have solid conservative Christian credentials.
But political science professor Bob Oldendick, of the University of South Carolina, says it’s not Romney’s Mormon faith that’s a liability for him in the South — it’s his more moderate stance or altered positions on key social issues.
"What some of his opponents have done in the campaign is continually use the phrase 'Massachusetts moderate' to make that distinction," Oldendick said. And "if there’s anybody who is thinking, 'Well maybe he’s the most electable,' they are trying to make those more moderate issues salient so, 'No I can’t really pull the trigger for him.' "
Romney’s religion was raised in the Republican primary four years ago, when he came in fourth in South Carolina. But this time, even social conservatives are saying the economy is the No. 1 issue for them in this election.
That’s true for Joel Powell of Forestville Baptist Church, who says he recently received two brochures in the mail from Romney and has decided to vote for him.
"The emphasis there (in the brochures) was his stance on issues of family and faith and various things I didn’t know about him," Powell said. "So I had been somewhat of a fan of his already but I did have some concerns until I read that."
For those evangelicals who haven’t made up their minds in this race yet, several prominent South Carolina Christians leaders are advising them to pray for wisdom in making their choice.
This program aired on January 20, 2012.