South Carolina’s Greenville County is among the most socially conservative in the country. Home to Bob Jones University, it’s known as the buckle in the Bible Belt.
But in the recent Republican presidential primary, Greenville voters, like the rest of the state, bypassed three long-married candidates and handed votes to Newt Gingrich, confessor of two mistresses, both of whom he eventually took as brides.
“He was a dirtbag before when he was doing those things,’’ said Fletcher Mulnix, a 20-year-old senior at Bob Jones University who grew up in Travelers Rest, 11 miles north. “But he said he went to God and asked for forgiveness and I have to take his word on it.’’
Besides, he added, echoing a common refrain heard in Greenville in the lead-up to the primary, “we’re not electing a pastor.’’
As the presidential contest reaches a critical juncture with the Florida primary today, one question will be whether Gingrich can hold on to social conservative support, with evangelical voters expected to make up as much as a third of the electorate.
Interviews with South Carolina voters suggest that Gingrich’s infidelities and personal issues were, paradoxical as it might seem, dismissed. While evangelical Gingrich-backers found his indiscretions distasteful, they said their faith teaches that to sin is human and what matters most is that man seek forgiveness from God. Gingrich, they said, had shown sincere repentance, clearing the way for them to consider his political strengths.
“There is nothing an evangelical likes more than a penitent sinner and Newt’s been pretty penitent,’’ said Oran Smith, president and chief executive of Palmetto Family, a South Carolina-based evangelical organization that studies public-policy issues.
In this political climate, forgiveness was abundant for the candidate seen as most likely to beat President Obama, he said.
“There is a sense that we are pinned down at the beach in Normandy and we are going to find out if we are going to live or die and the personal characteristics of the general are just not that important right now,’’ Smith said.
Indeed, exit polls in South Carolina showed that evangelical voters backed Gingrich at a higher rate than nonevangelicals, delivering 44 percent of their vote to him. Statewide, Gingrich won 40 percent of the vote.
In South Carolina’s evangelical pockets, some observers said Gingrich’s sins might have boosted him and hurt Mitt Romney.
“Evangelicals recognize brokenness in people and they like it because that means a person is in need of God,’’ said Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.
By contrast, he said, Mitt Romney’s image of moral perfection makes some evangelicals uncomfortable. “Mitt Romney is too perfect.’’
Steve Prothero, a Boston University religion professor put it this way: “The repentant sinner fits their story more closely than some guy who has been a goody two-shoes all his life.’’
Gingrich himself echoed that theme. In an interview last week with David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network, Gingrich said, “I have not hidden from the facts of my life, that I have confessed my weaknesses, and that I have had to go to God for forgiveness and for reconciliation. . . . So, I think in that sense, it may make me more normal than somebody who wanders around seeming perfect and maybe not understanding the human condition.’’
Political observers note an equally remarkable factor in the contest was Gingrich’s win occurred with few mentions of his Catholicism - a religion that prompted evangelical leaders to oppose John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Indeed, Gingrich drew roughly the same amount of support from evangelicals as did Mike Huckabee, a Baptist preacher, four years earlier.
To be sure, there were some for whom Gingrich’s indiscretions were too much - a justifiable position, according to Michael Hamlet, pastor at First Baptist North Spartanburg.
“I think people look at him as someone who made some serious mistakes but has acknowledged those mistakes and accepted the Lord’s forgiveness and is seeking to build a new track record,’’ Hamlet said. “He seems to be very devoted to his wife now, but you can never be sure.’’
“We don’t know what anybody’s going to do in the future,’’ he added. “You can only make your best judgment, so it’s a matter of opinion.’’
For Jane Morgan, trust was an issue. “I don’t think I want a first lady who had an eight-year affair with a married man,’’ said Morgan, an evangelical stay-at-home mother in Greenville who voted for Rick Santorum. “That really bothers me completely. And if he lied to his wife every day, then he will lie to me as president.’’
She added, “I do believe in forgiveness but I believe there are consequences. If you shoot somebody, God will forgive you but you still have to go to jail. Newt’s consequence is that he is not a role model. I cannot tell my children to look up to that man.’’
Don McLaurin, a retired entrepreneur in Charleston and evangelical who voted for Romney, said his first reaction upon hearing Gingrich won was, “Good heavens!’’ But as he sat down to think about the election results, he concluded that Gingrich supporters had felt an impending crisis and had put aside moral issues.
He wrote: “Even Martin Luther is said to have opined that he would rather be governed by a competent Turk than an incompetent Christian. Survival is a powerful instinct.’’
Reese Boyd III, a Myrtle Beach lawyer, was among those drawn to Gingrich’s fiery rhetoric. He said he had been given pause by Gingrich’s moral issues. “It was a tough choice. There was no reflexive: Oh, you’re a Christian and this is your choice.’’
Boyd considered Rick Santorum. But he said he went with Gingrich because he believed the former speaker could more effectively pull off the dramatic change that is needed in the country.
“We know no one is perfect. The Bible tells us that with certainty.’’