Greenville, S.C. Mixes Church and State in GOP Primary

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-- By Kirsten Fruit, The University of Montana

Nestled in a small residential neighborhood just north of downtown Greenville, S.C., sits Tommy’s Ham House. This basic family diner, famous for its down-home Southern cooking, has become a “must-stop” for those seeking the highest office in the land.

Beginning this spring, presidential hopefuls courting the Southern vote ahead of the state’s early GOP primary will begin showing up to shake the hands of voters and preach their respective platforms to potential voters in the ongoing battle for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

“Candidates have been coming here for over 27 years,” said Tommy Stevenson, owner and operator of Tommy’s Ham House. “I suspect we’ll start to see larger numbers trickle through over the next few months.”

The GOP lynchpin

It’s no accident that the Ham House is on the itinerary of so many GOP hopefuls.

Greenville County has historically been the gateway to the South for politicians. Situated in the South Carolina upstate, on the border with North Carolina and Georgia, Greenville is the state’s largest, most densely populated, and most politically influential county.

Candidates, particularly Republican candidates, have made it a mainstay on the campaign trail for one simple reason: Greenville County is the hub of social and fiscal conservatism in South Carolina.

Greenville is an Evangelical Epicenter in Patchwork Nation. It's based near similar counties in a relatively densely populated northwestern area of the state and it is influential.

“If you’re running for the Republican Party presidential nomination, Greenville is the number one county you need to visit,” said Todd Kincannon, a local attorney and Republican politico in Greenville. “If you get the stamp of approval here, you’re going to be well liked among the conservative base across the state.”

Greenville County, in addition to being staunchly conservative, is also solidly Republican. Although voters in South Carolina do not register by party, recent poll results have shown that around two-thirds of the county’s population consistently votes Republican across local, statewide and national elections.

This, according to Kincannon, is a huge motivator drawing presidential candidates into the state.

“If you want to be a Republican president of the United States, you dang well better get people in Greenville County and in South Carolina to like you,” he said, adding that to be successful in Greenville candidates must demonstrate themselves to be genuine fiscal and social conservatives.

God’s (and Bob Jones’s) country

Fueling resident’s political and social attitudes, perhaps more than anything else, is a deeply rooted religious faith that permeates Greenville County.

Unlike prototypical Evangelical Epicenters, as defined by the Patchwork Nation, Greenville enjoys both higher-than-average income and education levels. In relation to other communities in this group, it is more prosperous financially and has a strong K-12 and high education system. However, the large church-going population and high rate of evangelical adherents earned it classification as an Evangelical Epicenter.

“In South Carolina generally, and in Greenville County in particular, people care a lot about religion, so they’re typically going to look for candidates who practice Judeo-Christian ethics and morality and have a genuine commitment to Judeo-Christian theology,” Kincannon said. “Being a ‘fake’ Christian is not going to help you win this county. People will see right through that.”

Greenville County is home to more than 300 congregations of varying denominations, as well as one of the nation’s largest and most influential Christian colleges--Bob Jones University.

Historically, Bob Jones has served as a major venue for Republican politicians and presidential candidates hoping to capture the Bible Belt. However, observes said in recent years the university’s influence has waned as a result of an ongoing effort to disassociate itself from the political fray.

“It used to be a place you had to make peace with if you wanted to win South Carolina, but that hasn’t been the case for the past decade,” Kincannon said.

According to Linda Abrams, a professor in the Social Science Department at Bob Jones, the university has actively tried to stay out of politics. But, this hasn’t discouraged faculty and staff from energetically participating.

“The university doesn’t see itself as a political entity or force out to advocate a particular candidate or issue. It’s really tried to distance itself from that image,” she said. “Although, much of the faculty and staff is heavily active and involved in politics.”

The pulpit and the ballot box

This political activism is further bolstered by Greenville’s religious community, of which around 57 percent of residents claim strict adherence.

“Churches in the area encourage members to participate and vote for candidates who hold conservative positions,” Abrams said. “They urge their members to exercise their constitutional rights and liberties, while upholding their moral obligation of spreading the gospel and message of Jesus Christ to the community.”

She added that, despite this routine practice, churches do try to maintain an appropriate separation between politics and religion.

“I don’t think you would ever see churches in the area advocating a particular candidate, but they definitely preach the right and wrong of certain issues and encourage their members to exercise their right to vote for those candidates who will best represent their interests,” she said.

And, while pastors don’t necessarily talk politics from the pulpit, congregations do talk amongst themselves.

“Because a higher percentage of people in Greenville County go to church more often than residents in most counties throughout the nation, upwards of two to three times a week, congregants have greater and more numerous opportunities to share information and reinforce each other’s choices among candidates,” said Danielle Vinson, a professor in the Political Science Department at Furman University, a private liberal arts college located in Greenville.

Mega-questions

Within Greenville County, religion is both a defining and driving force for politics in the community, a fact not lost upon candidates seeking the 2012 Republican nomination.

But one new trend within the religious community has emerged as a wildcard in the candidates’ planning. A relatively recent proliferation of nondenominational mega-churches, with membership in the tens of thousands, throughout the county has shifted the religious, and potentially political, landscape of the area, said Bob Jones’s Abrams.

“It will definitely be interesting to see what direction these organizations will go in, whether they will enter the political fray and, if so, whether they will champion social and fiscal conservatism or become a more moderating force in South Carolina politics,” Abrams said.

Still, as sure as candidates will spend millions of dollars in South Carolina and cruise Tommy’s seeking out prospective supporters, the religious community in Greenville will be a complicated, but clear, force to be reckoned with in the GOP battle.

“Let’s just put it this way, a candidate will not win the Republican Party nomination if they do not win the South Carolina primary. And, Greenville County is very influential in making that happen,” Kincannon said.

This report was produced as part of a course taught by Lee Banville, contributor to the Patchwork Nation project, at The University of Montana this spring. As part of the class, The Media and American Politics, students reported on 15 different counties in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada -- the states that will vote first in the presidential nomination fight in 2012.