CHARLESTON, S.C. — “I firmly believe the American people must entrust this office to someone who understands that whoever holds it is the servant, not the master — someone who will commit to that service with honor and decency.”
Jeb Bush, the abundantly funded establishment candidate, used that line to exit the presidential race after coming in fourth in Saturday’s South Carolina GOP primary. Bush’s language was political, but it also evoked the Christian faith. Of the many Bible verses about having a servant mentality, Mark 9:35, for example, describes Jesus saying to his disciples, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” The concept of “servant leadership” is widely cited in religious contexts, but also the secular ones of politics and corporate governance.
That kind of language should have served Bush well in appealing to South Carolina’s Republican electorate — more than two-thirds of whom identify as white evangelical Christians. But by Saturday evening it was too late; South Carolina had voted and Bush had managed to win only 7 percent of evangelicals. Instead, a plurality — 34 percent — went for Donald Trump, about the same share as the state’s GOP primary voters overall.
According to the Edison Research/National Election Pool, evangelicals even chose Trump over contenders like Marco Rubio (21 percent) and Ted Cruz (26 percent) who frequently cite their Christian backgrounds as a guidepost. Cruz, who won the Iowa Caucuses and outperformed polls largely based on evangelical support, has a national prayer team. Trump couldn’t or wouldn’t name his favorite verse of the Bible and has made gaffes including misnaming one of its books.
Trump’s win among evangelicals was a bit of a surprise to the media — the cable networks hammered away at the issue, and on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” Chuck Todd peppered Cruz with questions about why he lost the group that had supported him in Iowa. But the South Carolina results show evangelicals are a diverse group with sometimes differing priorities. Trump did well among less-conservative evangelicals but not among those who want a candidate who shares their values. And after all, two-thirds of South Carolina evangelicals voted for one of the other candidates instead.
Evangelical Christians are a quarter of the U.S. electorate. In South Carolina’s exit polls, people who described themselves as born-again Christians (who may not always be or call themselves evangelicals) made up 72 percent of Republican primary voters, a record turnout for this group. Evangelical support for Trump has risen from 21 percent in Iowa to 28 percent in New Hampshire and now 34 percent in South Carolina. Nonetheless, by the luck of the draw, after spending hours at several polling places in the greater Charleston area, I ended up speaking with Trump voters, evangelical voters and non-evangelical Christian voters, but I found no evangelical Trump voters.1
At a polling place in Mount Pleasant, a Charleston suburb, I spoke with Allan Woodbury, a 53-year-old small business owner who didn’t cite religion as a factor in his decision to vote for Trump. He made his choice because, he said, “I wanted the economy to get back on track.” He said that come November he would back whichever GOP candidate is the nominee. “But right now, I’m voting for who I want to win.” Others were less amenable — nearly half of Trump voters statewide said they would vote only for him. Two other voters I met — one in Mount Pleasant for John Kasich and one in North Charleston for Bush — said they would not vote for any other GOP candidates in the general election if their primary pick lost the nomination or dropped out.
Later on Saturday I visited the elegant home of Kim and Chris Nickels, who belong to Seacoast, a major evangelical church headquartered in Mount Pleasant with campuses throughout the state. Chris described their community as one of the major Republican hubs of the Charleston area, which overall voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Chris and Kim invited me to Seacoast’s Saturday evening services, which started not long before the polls closed. Seacoast looks more like a college campus than a traditional church, with sports facilities, a bookstore, a coffee shop, and people in tidy casual wear, not high dress. At the packed services, minister Greg Surratt noted that a church he visited during the ’70s had a dress code that forbade his then-au-courant bell-bottoms. Even earlier in the service, while noting the state’s political importance, he also made a point of saying the church was formally nonpartisan.
The Nickelses said no one they knew from church supported Trump. Chris, a lawyer, voted for Rubio. He said both Cruz and Rubio passed his “smell test” of fitting with his religious values and being a constitutional conservative, but Rubio could appeal more to younger voters. Kim, a nurse, picked Cruz, not just based on his strong faith and his political positions but because she believed he was best-positioned against Trump in South Carolina. (Rubio actually nudged Cruz out for second place.)
The Nickelses think part of the confusion of the race has been the wide field. The evangelical vote has been split among all the candidates, including Ben Carson, who once led the pack nationwide, and for whom their youngest daughter briefly worked on his book tour. (The Nickelses decided his candidacy wasn’t progressing, and others seemed to agree; Carson got just 7 percent of the evangelical vote in South Carolina.)
“2016 is demonstrating a lot of folks are upset with the status quo,” Chris said. “And I don’t think it’s the status quo of Democrats or Republicans, just the status quo of politicians from either side of the aisle. And people are participating who have not participated before.” New voters are picking Bernie Sanders and Trump, the latter of whom he described as “not someone who I care for politically.”
South Carolina allows all registered voters to participate in one primary — GOP or Dem — regardless of registration. “Seeing people switch and move around has been so interesting to me,” Kim said. She even persuaded a likely Democratic voter to vote in the GOP primary for Cruz in order to diminish the impact of Trump and “stop a certain crazy train,” she said. “But I also like Marco Rubio and I would be proud to vote for him.”
After Trump’s win, conservative media mogul Glenn Beck asked listeners and viewers to join him in fasting on behalf of Cruz in advance of the Nevada GOP caucus this week. The mix of residents’ religious affiliation in Nevada is different from South Carolina, with white evangelical Protestants making up 10 percent of the Nevada population; white mainline Protestants 13 percent; Catholics of all races and ethnicities 23 percent; and Mormons 6 percent. “If the country is lost, it will be lost because of the Christians” not supporting Cruz, he said. (Beck himself is Mormon.) But his views of the leading GOP candidate are not universal among religious conservatives. Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., whose televangelist father founded the Christian school, endorsed Trump late last month.
Chris said it was “hard to understand” why evangelicals would vote for Trump, likening the role of voters to that of jurors in a trial. “You assess credibility … and I think overall the assessment among evangelicals among Donald Trump is that he lacks some — not total — credibility. And I think that’s very easy to trace in positions and statements and positions he’s taken in Iowa when he needed to appeal to evangelicals. We pick up clues when he cites a certain book of the Bible.” Chris also said Trump’s crude or divisive language describing certain groups, “especially women … does not compute … If you say you are an evangelical voter, how could you consider Donald Trump, given that there are five, six different choices out there?”
After Bush’s exit there are only five. And after Tuesday, when Nevada residents, who had their Democratic caucuses this past weekend, will hold their contest for Republican voters, there may be fewer. Trump is polling near 40 percent in Nevada by our polling average (though polls are sparse) while Rubio and Cruz are hovering around 20 percent. As the race narrows, the question is whether supporters of former candidates will head for Trump or the competition. (And if the competition, then who?)
A Jan. 30 Gallup poll of people of all political persuasions shows that Trump has a higher unfavorable rating than any eventual nominee from either party since at least 1992. But his support remains strong among Republicans, and that’s what counts during primary and caucus season. In other words, one American’s — or evangelical Christian’s — crazy train could be another’s ticket to ride to what they hope is a better future.