The Palmetto Candidate

“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” So it would seem, from Matthew 18:20, that Jesus was on Saturday walking among the polls of South Carolina, where Republican voters in one of America’s most evangelical Protestant states made their contributions to the selection of the 2012 Republican nominee.

But the January 21st primary shed surprise across faces of voters nationwide, as Newt Gingrich pulled a 13-point victory over everyone’s (reluctantly) expected victor, Mitt Romney. And now, officially, Mitt– who for so long seemed definitively to succeed John McCain as the GOP’s challenge to Barack Obama– has thus far only won one of three state primaries.

Quick aside: That is, in places where Obama makes it onto the ballot. Yep, some folks, most recently in Atlanta, have yet to cede that someone with a foreign dictator’s middle name could possibly have been born in this country. Even in Hawaii, with the highest percentage of multicultural-Americans in the country.

At any rate, the evidently-undoubtedly-American Newt Gingrich has now found himself locked in a duel with Mitt Romney for the red-ink place on the presidential ballot. It seems this mysterious landslide came from Gingrich’s staunch Catholicism, which he frames not as a Kennedy-esque pluralistic faith but rather as a position against the “secularization” of America by the “cultural elite” (who exactly is he referring to here, anyway? The “elite” in our culture, looking for instance at Cee Lo Green’s New Year’s Eve rewriting of Lennon, certainly seem to have no interest in driving religious sentiment, albeit perhaps pluralistic,  anywhere but back into public life).

Indeed, a Pew Forum survey determined that Gingrich scored best among South Carolina’s staple evangelical crowd, receiving 44% of their vote. He also won out in voters described as Catholic, although not quite as decisively as he did with evangelicals (he and Romney split the Catholic vote 37% and 29%). Growing up in southeastern North Carolina, I’d chalk this up to a feeling of slightly more progressive Catholicism among Southern voters. That demographic shares a number with the significant Hispanic minority in the Carolinas, who might be sympathetic to Romney’s tendency to emphasize his support for legal immigration even when advocating for border security and criticizing amnesty. Incidentally, Gingrich and Romney experienced a clash over immigration earlier today, as Gingrich turns his focus towards winning the Latino vote in the general election.

Romney and Gingrich chat

"Pull my finger, Frenchie, or pull the ad calling me a serial hypocrite. Your choice."

And yet, I’m not expecting Gingrich to go too much further. Looking primarily on the religious front, as we do under this domain name, neither candidate at this point offers a traditionally Protestant worldview to the GOP votership. Republicans are left with a choice: between a former-baptist whose conversion to Catholicism has come alongside a string of divorces and questionable family values (despite his cat-like ability to dodge questions in the realm), and a Mormon who has gone to great lengths to draw common ground between his faith and that of the non-Mainline voters who dominate the party.

On the 31st, Florida will hold its Republican primary, and then we’ll have a hiatus of Southern primaries until March 6th with Georgia, Tennessee, and Virgina (yes, they count as Southern, at least according to my arbitrary scale based on prevalence of sweet tea). Now the race has been (realistically) diminished to a duo of GOP prospies, both of whom count themselves among minority religious groups. And both will likely find that they have to pander to the Deep South’s characteristic evangelical crowd if they want to emerge first, as it’s seemed to work for Gingrich in SC.

Walker Bristol grew up in southeastern North Carolina, in a town somewhat known for being the principal filming location of Dawson’s Creek (his parents, and reality, insist that his brother Dawson was born and named prior to the show’s pilot). He escaped to Boston when he was 17, and now serves Italian food and studies religion and linguistics at Tufts University. He wrestled in high school, but now mostly ballroom dances and jams on the piano with the rest of the Tufts Freethought Society. For the first decade of his life, Walker believed “incorrectly” that he was living in the Star Wars universe. Having never been to space, he remains agnostic on that question.

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