Religion matters to S.C. voters, polls show

COLUMBIA -- Just about all of the presidential candidates are touting their faith as they campaign for the White House.

The candidates, both Democrats and Republicans, have opened up about their faith because they want voters to know they share their values.

This is especially true in South Carolina, where in one poll 90 percent of voters said religion was important to them.

Consider these recent events.

• Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister and Republican presidential hopeful, said during a debate that he does not believe in evolution, a position shared by some religious conservatives who believe evolution conflicts with the biblical version of creation.

• U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently said he's not Episcopalian but a Baptist, which is the largest religious denomination in South Carolina home to an important primary next year. McCain has been listed in Web sites and political guidebooks as an Episcopalian.

• Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, has contemplated and so far rejected the idea of giving a speech to explain his faith and ease concerns about it among some religious conservatives.

• Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Roman Catholic, has angered some fellow Catholics and other religious conservatives because he supports abortion rights. But Giuliani also has assured religious conservatives he would appoint "strict constructionist" judges who have generally not seen a right to privacy in the U.S. Constitution. A right to privacy is the foundation upon which the legality of abortion rests. Giuliani's pledge helped him win the backing of some leading Christian conservatives.

Typically, issues of faith have been more of a focus for Republican candidates because religious conservatives have been seen as a key part of the GOP constituency.

But George W. Bush's election and re-election seems to have changed that. Bush effectively courted religious conservatives during his campaigns and has openly spoken of his religious faith and how it guides him as president.

After he was re-elected in 2004, Democrats took note of Bush's support from religious conservatives.

Just days after Bush defeated John Kerry in 2004, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, the New York Democrat who was then contemplating her own run for the White House, told an audience at Tufts University in Massachusetts- "I don't think you can win an election or even run a successful campaign if you don't acknowledge what is important to people. We don't have to agree with them. But being ignored is a sign of such disrespect."

Clinton later said Democrats should speak about religion more openly to frame policy debates.

"The Bible should be used to win debates over poverty the way Republicans tried to use it on gay marriage," she said. "No one can read the New Testament of our Bible without recognizing that Jesus had a lot more to say about how we treat the poor than most of the issues that were talked about in this election."

Today, Clinton stands as her party's front-runner. She and her top rivals for the Democratic nomination have all touted the support they received from clergy. They and the Republicans in the field welcome opportunities to speak in churches or to religious groups.

Stressing faith could be a smart move in South Carolina. A recent Winthrop/ETV poll showed that 90 percent of black South Carolinians say religion is important to them. Black voters are expected to account for half of those casting ballots in the Democratic primary.

Those who have thought about the nexus of religion and politics say voters do want to know if a candidate is guided or comforted in tough times by their religious faith. But there are risks.

"I and perhaps other people would be turned off by people who see everything in black and white," said the Rev. Mary Anderson of the Incarnation Lutheran Church in Columbia, who recently participated in a symposium on religion and politics. "Things are not that simple. As a person of faith, I think that's a fallacy."

Churches, which accept tax-free donations, are generally supposed to be nonpartisan. Many pastors have felt no such restriction.

Pat Robertson recently endorsed Giuliani, raising the ire of McCain, who has been courting religious conservatives.

The Mormon issue

Romney received a coveted endorsement from the Rev. Don Wilton, former president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.

But after Romney's campaign issued a press release touting the endorsement, Wilton withdrew it, calling it "a personal error" caused by his "not realizing the extent to which it would be used on a national basis."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has not endorsed Romney's campaign, which has served as something of a double-edged sword for the church.

On one hand, Romney's run for the White House has generated curiosity about his faith. On the other hand are skepticism and ridicule from some who see Mormonism as a cult.

John Taylor, a public affairs specialist for the Mormon church, said it takes no official position on whether Romney should give a speech to clarify his religious faith.

"Is the church a cult?" Taylor said. "We clearly say no."