Fresh off a month-long missionary trip teaching at a Bible college in the Philippines, David Thomas drove to Clemson last week to listen to real estate tycoon Donald Trump.
Thomas wore a tie and a brown jacket zipped against the cold and sat front-and-center just steps away from the GOP presidential candidate.
He came to hear a man speak who he believes to be the next Theodore Roosevelt – an unorthodox outsider who will shake up Washington at a time it needs someone to break through the federal logjam.
Yet Thomas, a former state senator, is a conservative Christian Sunday school teacher and the exact sort of person who many political pundits say should be turned off by the brash, rude and crude Trump style.
But that style – “gravitas,” as Thomas called it – is what sucked him in.
“I was not blown away by any of the candidates and when Trump came along I could see the advantages,” Thomas said. “He might be able to bring such a new sweep and a new vision that it will open channels that we don’t currently have.”
Thomas represents a fissure that’s opened wide among South Carolina evangelicals in the lead-up to the GOP presidential preference primary on Feb. 20. The cracks began to open in 2012 when a twice-divorced Newt Gingrich won South Carolina, but it’s been ripped wide open by a twice-divorced Trump.
As candidates court the roughly 65 percent of GOP voters in the state who count themselves as evangelicals, many of those voters are looking beyond faith to choose their candidate.
Instead, evangelicals are split into two camps and the divide has grown in the 20 years that Michael Lindsay, a sociologist who wrote the Pulitzer-nominated book Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite, has studied evangelicalism in politics.
Trump, and to a lesser extent Cruz, have tapped into the “populist evangelicals,” those working-class folks who listen to conservative talk radio, are drawn to mass rallies and hold the idea that motivating great masses of people is the way to achieve political influence, Lindsay said.
Rubio has garnered the support of the bulk of the GOP evangelical power brokers who Lindsay describes as “cosmopolitan evangelicals,” the strategy-minded, highly educated evangelicals who are reliant on their connections, Lindsay said. They have been effective in the recent past because of their more nuanced understanding of how politics works, he said.
In this election, the populist, anti-establishment sentiment has dominated so far, and Trump, the unlikely evangelical candidate, has benefitted, he said.
In the latest South Carolina poll released Friday by the Augusta Chronicle, Morris News Service and Fox5 Atlanta, 33 percent of evangelicals favored Trump, versus 23 percent for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and 15 percent for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Cruz has openly courted evangelicals, hosting a rally for religious liberty at Bob Jones University and building a 100-strong coalition of pastors led by Columbia-based minister Mike Gonzalez.
Rubio has his own South Carolina religious liberty advisory board made up of pastors, priests and pro-life advisors. In an appearance at the Faith and Family Forum at BJU last week, Rubio essentially laid out the evangelical plan of salvation to a rousing response at the Christian university.
National religious figures like Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Association, have blistered Trump for his moral misgivings and shift in stance on abortion.
Evangelical support for Trump has held strong even without support from faith leaders in the state with the notable exception of Mark Burns, pastor of Harvest Praise and Worship Center in Easley and co-founder of the NOW television network.
Burns led an opening prayer for Trump last week in Clemson and then spoke in place of Trump at BJU on Friday afternoon.
The response to Burns’ prayer signaled the everyday evangelicals who turned out for Trump.
As he closed his prayer, Burns called out “In Jesus name, if you believe it, say ‘Amen!’”
The crowd, in near unison, shouted out “Amen.”
Pulpits vs. pews
While preachers and faith leaders back others, Trump has still commandeered support from those sitting in the pews.
That doesn’t surprise Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University.
“When they go to the ballot box, South Carolina voters behave like voters, not churchgoers,” Huffmon said. “That’s a little different than Iowa cause they do tend to coalesce behind one candidate, but not here.”
While it does look good for Rubio, Cruz and to an extent, Bush, to have ministers’ support, “that’s not necessarily going to influence how evangelicals vote,” he said.
Candidates need only to make a nod toward religious voters in South Carolina to give voters here the freedom to select their preference, he said.
So despite Trump’s nominal and sometimes comical efforts to identify with evangelicals, like when he tried to put his offering in the communion plate in Iowa, or mispronounced “Second Corinthians” as “2 Corinthians,” he’s done enough to pacify some voters here, Huffmon said.
And indications are that many are willing to overlook Trump’s demeaning comments towards women, his raunchy speech and his barrage of insults to other candidates.
“They have the same anger that any other voter has toward the establishment and they feel sort of blocked in and bunkered in and they want somebody who will fight for them,” he said. “And as long as he gives them a nod ‘Yeah, Christianity’s the best,’ they will say ‘OK, well I wish he went to church more. I wish he didn’t use a little bit of foul language, but by gum we need a strong fighter like that to stand up for us Christians.’”
Secular but strong
The evangelical vote will be split widely among the candidates, but Trump has done perhaps the best job of striking a chord with conservatives on issues that have frustrated them like immigration and terrorism, said Jim Guth, political science professor at Furman University.
Evangelicals also have begun to shy away from backing candidates solely for their religious beliefs, he said.
“George Bush, for example, could say all the right words and share a lot of their faith at the same time that he might expand the role of the federal government or other things that they don’t approve of,” Guth said.
The change in mindset may reflect a political maturation of evangelicals who realize no candidate is ideal, said Lindsay, who is now president of Gordon College, a small Christian liberal arts college near Boston. It’s possible evangelicals as a bloc could mobilize around him, but Trump will have to make significant inroads with those cosmopolitan evangelicals for that to happen, he said.
“It would be a significant departure for values voters to rally around a candidate who seems to use language that is so antithetical to their values,” he said.
By and large, Upstate pastors have shied away from political involvement this election cycle, which could lead those values voters to make up their own mind, Guth said.
Guth’s students at Furman have listened at local churches for political speech from the pulpit and are hearing little, he said.
“The ‘let’s just stay clear of this’ attitude seems to be prevalent this year,” he said.
That’s created a vacuum that Trump has more than filled.
Voters like Thomas who supported Mike Huckabee and George W. Bush in the past, have moved beyond looking for the candidate who resembles their religious belief system.
Trump has seized onto those disaffected voters with promises to lead by strength, confront enemies and bring a business-like mindset to the Oval Office.
“It could very well be that Trump could accomplish the purpose of the conservative Christian endgame that your more avowed Christians won’t be able to pull off,” Thomas said.