South Carolina caucus: Post and Courier tells us more about GOP than Democrats

Gotta pinch myself sometimes when I read the respectful treatment this year for evangelicals -- especially in matters like the Wisconsin caucus last week. And in a more recent advance in the Post and Courier for the South Carolina vote.

The story not only takes a courteous tone, but shows a seasoned view on politics and religion around the state. So it's got that going for it, which is nice. But it's sharper on the Republican/evangelical side than the Democratic/mainline side. Especially when it comes to black churches.

Just as New Hampshire polls as the least religious state, "almost 80 percent of all voters identify as Christians" in South Carolina, the Post and Courier says. "And what they hear in the pews often affects what they do at the polls."

With that terrain mapped out, we're prepared for the broad outlines:

On the GOP side, evangelical voters make up a super-majority of the party’s base, and they are attuned to where candidates stand on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. However, experts note they don’t always settle on a single candidate who they feel best advances their cause.
The state’s black voters make up most of the Democratic Party’s base, and for them, churches have served as a galvanizing force to advance civil rights and other shared goals.

We read a short advance on a Faith and Family rally at Bob Jones University, to be attended by all the GOP candidates except Donald Trump. Oran Smith, director of the sponsoring Palmetto Family Alliance, reveals a surprising paradox: Because of the very dominance of evangelicalism in South Carolina, "they are more apt to consider economic and security issues along with social issues."

Another deft touch: The Post and Courier says Smith holds a degree in political science from Clemson University -- then quotes a sitting political science professor at Clemson for some valuable background:

Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor, said Republican evangelical voters here have split their votes before, as far back as 1988, when Pat Robertson, a former Southern Baptist minister, was thought to have an edge here over Kansas Sen. Bob Dole and Vice President George H.W. Bush.
"The Christian Coalition was very powerful here — it was probably the best organized Christian Coalition in the country," Woodard said. "But they weren’t able to deliver the goods, and the talent went away after that... I just don’t think they are what they once were."

Other mainstream media remembered the Robertson campaign but not the Christian Coalition. The only thing I would have added is that the coalition was itself created by Robertson.

The Post and Courier goes even further, thanks to Oran Smith. He says the coalition is still strong in the Upstate region -- actually, the northwestern sector, with cities like Greenville and Spartanburg -- where Mike Huckabee made a good showing in 2008.

The Democratic side, though, is more sweeping and less nuanced in this article: It's totally taken up with the blend of worship and church-based community organization in black churches. The newspaper quotes another political science professor citing "retail politics," though it doesn't define the term. (It means paying direct visits to local venues to ask for votes.)

For a representative Democrat, the story chooses the Rev. Joseph Darby, a district elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Darby says he can expect overtures from Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, or at least their representatives.

He says blacks and Democrats get along because they share a belief in working for a "common good." But he knows he's being used:

Darby said he doesn’t like "drive-by" visits and would prefer the candidate remain for the service. And the candidates or their surrogates are allowed to bring greetings, "as long as those greetings don’t turn into a sermon."
"I tell them, ‘You’re there to worship, not just to say, ‘Hello, please vote for me,’ " he said.

In examining the Democratic pitch to black churches, the Post and Courier has spotted a trend I saw in Florida as well. When I worked as religion writer of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, I covered a blatantly partisan speech by Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to a national convention of black Baptist pastors. And in the 2008 presidential cycle, I got a request from a campaigner -- a former managing editor of the newspaper, in fact -- for a list of churches in a predominantly black section of Broward County.

But the heavy emphasis on AME churches is a soft spot in the Post and Courier story. It leaves out Episcopal, United Methodist and other white Protestant groups that typically lean toward liberal politics.  It ignores Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in the state capital, Columbia. It even omits other black denominations, like the Church of God in Christ, a socially conservative denomination. 

It's possible that white Protestant Democrats in South Carolina just aren’t as active as African Americans. If so, the article should have said so. You can't expect all readers to know.

So, bottom line: Respect and savvy are good in a pinch. But for Carolinian Democrats, the Post and Courier needs a better grasp.


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