Democrats Find Religion in South Carolina

Churches become organizing hubs as Democratic primary approaches.

Jan. 24, 3008 —, 2008 -- If you want to find out where a Democratic presidential candidate stands, find a seat this week in a South Carolina pew.

Religious voters are set to play an unprecedented role in the South Carolina Democratic primary -- particularly in the African-American community, which is expected to comprise roughly half of likely Democratic voters in Saturday's primary.

That's turned churches across the state into hubs of political organizing activity. Church leaders are running voter-registration drives and arranging for rides to polling places. Campaigns are setting up discussion groups in church meeting rooms.

Candidates and surrogates are fanning out to historically black churches. And congregation lobbies are turning into information clearinghouses, where potential voters can pick up information about candidates.

"People go to church here like you go to lunch, so you know, if there's an event at church, you go to church," said Marnie Robinson, the marketing manager at Brookland Baptist Church in Columbia; Robinson also handles faith outreach for the campaign.

It was Gospel Café night at Brookland Baptist on a recent Friday, and the menu included jazz, chicken fingers and politicking. Brochures proclaim Obama to be a "COMMITTED CHRISTIAN" -- pushing back at Internet rumors that Obama is a Muslim.

"If they don't know who he is, they're going to know after they pick up the literature tonight," Robinson said.

Obama has the most robust presence in and around churches -- one factor in his apparent advantage among African-American voters, political observers say.

The Clinton and Edwards campaigns have also been aggressively reaching out to religious voters; in one odd scene over the weekend, Chelsea Clinton and Michelle Obama attended the same church service, in Columbia.

All the campaigns know that churches provide some of their best opportunities to reach likely voters, said Terry M. Riley, a city council member from Kansas City, Mo., who was dispatched to the Charleston area by the Obama campaign.

"In the church -- historically, the African-American church and churches period -- people that attend church are people that are responsible voters, so we take the message right to the people where they are at the churches," said Riley, the immediate past president of the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials.

Church leaders say parishioners depend on getting information about important civic events through their churches.

"Traditionally, the African-American church has depended on that road map from the institution to direct us in various ways," said K. Allen Campbell, events coordinator at Brookland Baptist. "It's always been important, [the ties between] civil rights organizations to the African-American church, and I think especially in this election."

And so pastors are opening their pulpits to candidates and their supporters, encouraging all voters to go to the polls.

"Your mission of your pastor is that we educate and qualify voters, [so] that when you make your personal decision, you don't make it based on anything other than the dictates of your heart," the Rev. Isaac J. Holt Jr. told congregants Sunday at Royal Baptist Church in North Charleston.

A few minutes later, Riley was onstage, making a case for Obama.

"I hope America is ready to make a change and elect Barack Obama president of the United States of America, because we need him at this point in our history," Riley said.

In this overheated political year, the presidential campaigns have pervaded all spheres, making the mixture of churchgoing and politics more natural.

"It's dinner conversation, it's a little bit of everywhere," said Nadia Perry, who came to Gospel Café night at her church in Columbia last week.

Despite the pro-Obama speakers and handouts at her church, Perry said she's leaning toward supporting Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.

"It's a very tough decision, but I will vote Democratic, and I'm probably going to vote for Hillary," she said. "I was born female and I was born black, but I think I want to pull more toward the feminism."