Salena Zito

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Richard Thomas said he prayed for guidance to select the best Republican presidential candidate in the South Carolina primary on Saturday.

Those prayers brought Thomas, an engineer, to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the front-runner in the Palmetto State primary.

"I am asking Jesus who will best serve this country, not who is the perfect choice for me," said Thomas, standing in the vestibule of First Baptist Church, which he joined 37 years ago.

Thomas' choice of Romney, a Mormon often criticized by social conservatives, should not be a surprise, said Catherine Wilson of Villanova University, an expert on the impact of religion on politics.

While South Carolina voters are often depicted as evangelical Christians who vote only for like-minded candidates, the truth is not that simple.

"What is portrayed by the media does not capture the complexities of what goes into a Christian conservative voter's thought process," Wilson said.

Opinion polls show Romney leading by anywhere from 5 to 11 percentage points over former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who won the endorsement over the weekend of the Family Research Council, a group of influential conservative Christians.

Established in 1809 by migrating Pennsylvanians, First Baptist Church today has more than 6,000 members and conducts services for Hispanic and Burmese people. The church includes Boyce Chapel, a National Historic Landmark where the documents to secede from the Union in 1861 were drafted.

A quick-thinking custodian spared the chapel from the torches of Gen. William Sherman's avenging Union army.

"General Sherman's soldiers went on a burning rampage in 1865, taking down seven churches," said the Rev. Wendell Estep, pastor of First Baptist. "But the custodian of Boyce Chapel, then the sole church building, directed the soldiers to the Methodist Church in the next block, and it was burned to the ground."

"I guess we owe the Methodists a church," Estep said jokingly.

The presidential primary worries Mike and Catherine Chase, who sat beside each other during Bible study. The Chases said they prayed for guidance on whom to vote for in the primary.

"For me, this time, it is Mitt Romney," said Mike Chase, an attorney and church deacon. His wife agreed. In 2008, the couple voted for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister.

"The Mormon issues has changed for me," Mike Chase added. "I know he shares our values and would be the best leader for the country on the economy."

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.