Candidates need saving in Bible Belt

Mitt Romney holds a campaign rally at Harmon's Tree Farm in Gilbert, South Carolina, 20 January 2012 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mitt Romney has the support of South Carolina's governor - but will that help carry the state?

The sprawling, gleaming interconnected buildings of a mega-church sits on one side of the road. On the other side of the four-lane highway is a tin shack, marked with the words "Assembly of God". This is a land of churches where 60% of the population are evangelical Christians.

That could make a difference when people vote in Saturday's Republican primary.

The current president of the South Carolina Baptist convention, Brad Atkins, thinks it should.

"It is vitally important," he tells me.

"If you look at the word of God, if you look at the Book of Proverbs it says, 'as a man thinks in his heart, so he is', which means a person's core beliefs are going to interact with how they are going to interact in public policy, foreign policy, all these things."

"For a person to say I am a person of deep faith, I believe in the sanctity of human life, I am pro-life, there are times things are going to come across their desk and they have to decide whether their core beliefs are going to guide them in this."

What does that mean for this race?

In every state where Republicans have voted so far, the story has been the same. Conservatives don't like or don't trust the obvious front-runner Mitt Romney. But they simply can't come together around one single alternative candidate.

Last judgment

But here there's an added twist.

The only other building near the mega-church and the shack sells carvings, including an 8ft (2.4m) wooden figure of Jesus holding a sheep.

The man who made it is a construction worker. He only carves when business is bad.

He is doing a lot of carving at the moment.

But here it isn't just the economy, stupid, that matters in elections. He hands my colleague what appears to be a business card. Except it reads "the wages of sin are death", with "death" written in huge gothic script.

What does the carver think of Mr Romney?

"He's a different religion," he says, making it clear that is his final judgment.

Mitt Romney is a Mormon. In Britain, a senior politician who believed new prophecies were handed down and written on gold tablets in the 19th century, that native Americans are a lost tribe of Israel and that Jesus travelled to America would indeed be questioned.

But in the South it is about whether such beliefs can be called Christian.

"He's a very moral person, he's a very good man, he's done a lot of good things in his life," Pastor Atkins says. "He gives a lot of money to his church. So it is not a moral issue with Mitt Romney.

"But when you look at the differences between biblical Christianity and Mormonism, there is a separation that takes place.

"Who God is, what eternity is, what heaven will be like, who Jesus is.

"So there are lot of issues where a biblical Christian cannot embrace the views of a Mormon."

He makes it clear this is not something that makes it impossible to vote for the former governor.

"Should Mitt Romney be the candidate who is selected to run against President Obama, and there is no other candidate, then I would have no problem voting for Mitt Romney, because of the direction our president is taking our country in." he says. "I believe we cannot endure four more years of that."

But here, as in Iowa and New Hampshire, they are finding it hard to pick one alternative and conservative candidate to get behind.


The opinion polls suggest that Newt Gingrich, the former speaker, is the obvious choice.

But he worries some. It's not that he is a recent convert to Roman Catholicism that's the trouble.

It is that he is only a fairly recent convert to uxorious faithfulness. He's on his third marriage.

That already worried some. When his second wife came out and told the world that he had wanted an open marriage, and to be allowed to carry on with his girlfriend, now his third wife, it was a powerful reminder of his past, however much he tried to blame the media.

But perhaps it is not quite so bad for him as it could be.

Central to the evangelical message is that we are all deeply flawed, all in need of forgiveness. The possibility of redemption is at the heart of the faith.

Lucky old Newt.

The man in danger is Mitt. He didn't win in Iowa. If he doesn't win here he will have lost his unique selling point: that he feels like a winner.

In politics, if an electorate lose faith in a front-runner there is no redemption, not even in the Bible Belt.