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."
Estep, whose sermons are televised across the South, says he will not endorse any candidate from the pulpit. "That is not what I do," he said.
"I tell them to pray on it, to see who best holds their values and who is best for the country," he said.
Estep said God sometimes leads him to do things he does not understand, such as instituting church services for Hispanic and Burmese members.
"It is not something I would have done on my own," he said. "But God told me it was the right thing to do."
Deborah Carnes, one of 250 choir members who stand behind Estep during Sunday services, said she, too, prays for guidance.
"I am leaning towards Ron Paul," she said. "I think he is best for the country on every single thing except foreign policy."
Carnes also prays for President Obama.
"I don't share his values and his positions, but he is our president, and I want him to make better choices," she said.
In 2008, the Obama campaign understood the importance of winning the church vote.
"The growing influence of the Religious Left was made apparent in the 2008 elections," said Wilson, the political scientist.
Obama captured 26 percent of the evangelical vote; 45 percent of the overall Protestant vote; and 54 percent of the Catholic vote.
"People want to see that you share your values. Obama projected that in 2008, and it is what Christian conservative voters are looking for in South Carolina in their primary choices," Wilson said.
Adam Burger, who lingered outside of the chapel waiting for his wife, Sara, said voters can't help but pay attention to presidential politics in South Carolina.
"I am leaning strongly towards Rick Santorum," said Burger, a lawyer. "I trust that he shares my core beliefs."
Sara Burger said she likes Santorum, too, but also Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
"I guess I need to do a little more praying, don't I?" she said.
That evangelicals are divided is evidence of the variety of evangelicals in South Carolina.
"Such a variety does not display evangelicals' waning power but rather their electoral strength as Gingrich, Santorum and Perry duke it out to capture their support," said Wilson. "This division will bode well for the Romney campaign, but Romney himself will still capture a sizable percentage in South Carolina."
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