S.C. evangelicals aim to revive the religious right as political force

Disappointed at the lack of progress on their political agenda, a group of evangelical Christians think they might have found the best candidates for office – their pastors.

More than 300 ministers, many from South Carolina, are expected to assemble in North Charleston on Friday to receive training on how to run for school board, city council, the State House and Congress.

“No one is convinced that the kingdom of God will arrive on Air Force One. No one thinks Wall Street will save America,” said David Lane, who heads the American Renewal Project, the California-based evangelical group sponsoring the training. “We’re looking for people – who know the word (of God), who know the culture – to run.”

About 90 pastors who attended training sessions in Baton Rouge and Oklahoma City earlier this year already have committed to running in 2016, Lane said.

He hopes to get at least 100 candidates out of the event in South Carolina, which has one of the nation’s largest populations of evangelicals. Overall, American Renewal wants to see 1,000 pastors nationwide on ballots next year, when the nation elects a new president.

“For whatever reason, we have been told that for the last century that you have stay at the pulpit,” Lane said. “We are trying to get pastors out into the public square.”

But that move could face some opposition.

Critics question whether pastors will jeopardize their churches’ nonprofit status by campaigning from the pulpit.

They also wonder if parishioners really want their ministers’ attention diverted from serving the church. “I assumed being a pastor was a higher calling than running for office,” Clemson University political scientist David Woodard said.

Adding pastors to the ballot could bolster the already powerful influence of evangelical Christians in S.C. Republican politics. Nearly 60 percent of GOP voters in the Palmetto State identified themselves as born again or evangelical in an April poll by Winthrop University.

Buoyed largely by voters in the Upstate, socially conservative presidential candidates – former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania – were among the top finishers in the 2008 and 2012 S.C. Republican primaries, respectively.

Both candidates have entered the 2016 race along with other GOP White House hopefuls eyeing evangelical support. The chances of a good showing by a socially conservative candidate next year could be increased by having ministers on the ballot, drawing more Christian conservative voters to the polls.

Evangelicals point to Huckabee, a former Baptist minister who is running for president a second time in 2016, as an example of a pastor transitioning successfully into politics. They also cite U.S. Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican who worked with that state’s Baptist General Convention before running for Congress.

The mostly white leaders of the movement to get ministers into elected office see few conflicts in the dual responsibilities that a pastor-politician would have to congregants and constituents.

African-American pastors have been doing it for years, they note.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a Greenville native, ran for president in the 1980s, for example. And seven African-American members of the S.C. General Assembly identify themselves as pastors.

Lane said he sees no separation between church and state, saying both are intertwined with the nation’s origin.

But one critic says evangelicals are rewriting early U.S. history in an effort to reverse recent cultural changes nationwide, such as more states allowing same-sex marriage.

“There’s some naivete about what’s possible in the political process (among evangelicals),” said Rob Boston, spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “We are not a theocracy, and we are not going to be a theocracy.

“They will always be disappointed unless we have fundamentalist Christian government. We will not have a Christian version of Iran.”

Unhappy with nominees

For years, the American Renewal Project has brought national politicians to meet with pastors in South Carolina and other key election states, trying to build the evangelical base.

But many evangelicals were unhappy with recent Republican presidential nominees –U.S. Sen. John McCain in 2008 and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012, both of whom lost to Democrat Barack Obama.

Dissatisfaction also has spread to state and local offices, where evangelicals say elected officials have not protected traditional values – permitting marriage only between a man and a woman, halting abortions and allowing demonstrations of faith in schools.

The call for pastors to run for office comes after many evangelical voters have grown apathetic about politics, unhappy with the results produced by the politicians they have backed, said Brad Atkins, the pastor of Powdersville First Baptist Church, who heads American Renewal’s efforts in South Carolina.

“They’ll elect them and watch for them to do what they promised and not see anything get done,” said Atkins, a former S.C. Baptist Convention president who has not decided if he will enter politics. “They feel like they don’t matter.”

With pastors in office, the expectation is that they will hold true to their campaign platforms.

“Honesty and trustworthiness is what they bring to the work,” Lane said.

South Carolina already has a sizable number of pastors in political office, but they typically are African-American Democrats.

Of the seven lawmakers in the Legislature who list their main occupations as pastors, all are African-Americans and six are Democrats.

African-American pastors have played a direct role in S.C. politics since the era of segregation, Woodard said.

“Being a black pastor was one of the jobs immune from white reprisals” during the Jim Crow era, the political scientist said. “You made a living and could speak for the community.”

Evangelical white pastors, who are mostly Republican, have been scared away from running for office by criticism from progressives, said Kevin Laird, director of the S.C. Pastors Association.

Democratic clergy don’t receive that scrutiny, Lane said.

“When African-American church leaders are in office, that’s just called politics,” he said. “We’re doing the same thing.”

Built-in advantages

American Renewal’s sessions to help pastors move into politics are called Issachar training, named after a passage in the biblical book of Chronicles.

The passage notes the “men of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.”

Lane said he sees that as a call to action for ministers to run for office.

The Issachar program in Baton Rouge included sessions on “Campaign Mechanics 101,” campaign messaging and setting up a finance committee. Former S.C. GOP party Chairman Chad Connelly, director of faith engagement for the Republican National Committee, will be among the speakers in North Charleston.

American Renewal plans to hold more campaign training sessions this year for ministers who decide to run next year, Lane said.

Evangelical leaders think the pastor-politicians have a good chance of winning, adding they have some built-in advantages.

Church leaders have a constituency to begin with – hundreds of parishioners who listen to their Sunday sermons and attend their Bible study classes. Some of those churchgoers will become campaign volunteers.

“All of a sudden, we have this team that could have a ripple effect,” Lane said, “and then we’re heading somewhere.”

American Renewal is using its ties with national politicians to help with recruiting pastors into politics. Its training sessions also are attracting 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls who are courting evangelicals.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican who is expected to announce a 2016 presidential run later this month, is scheduled to speak in North Charleston on Friday.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, spoke at the group’s session in Oklahoma City, while Huckabee is scheduled to talk at training in Orlando next month, Lane said.

Most of the pastors who go through the training are expected to run for local offices. It is there that evangelical leaders say they have a better chance for making changes.

“National elections are not going to turn our country around,” Atkins said. “If we can win on city and county councils, you turn the ship one degree at a time.”

The expectation is the pastors will fight for social issues, including allowing businesses to refuse to serve customers if doing so would violate the merchants’ religious convictions.

The pastor-politicians also have the skills needed to tackle economic issues by using their experience in running their churches, Lane said. “Pastors are successful men and women who are running budgets and have built churches.”

Churches and voters

Putting pastors on the ballot looks like a logical move to win evangelical voters.

One out of three South Carolinians identify themselves as an evangelical Protestant, which makes them the largest religious denomination in the state, according to the Pew Research Center.

Nationwide, evangelicals – more than any other group of Christians – want their churches to express views on political issues, according to a poll by Pew released last fall.

But there’s a catch.

While two out of three evangelicals want churches involved in politics, a large minority of them – 42 percent – do not want churches to favor a candidate, the Pew study found.

“There is a line (most) evangelicals have with religion in politics,” said Greg Smith, associate director of Pew’s Religion and Life Project.

Woodard, the Clemson political scientist, predicts some congregation members will have doubts about their minister running for office.

“People in the pews will wonder: ‘Is he trying to build a political career or is he going to be here to minister to the flock?’ ” Woodard said.

Pastors trying their hands in politics could face obstacles beyond skeptical parishioners.

Pastors who campaign from the pulpit threaten their church’s nonprofit status with the Internal Revenue Service, said Boston of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

But that does not worry supporters of the effort to get pastors in office.

Some ministers would welcome a fight with the IRS about using their pulpits for politics, said Baird of the S.C. Pastors Association: “Most pastors are not real concerned about those mythical lines.”