“About four people raised their hands, which to me was a pretty decent number,” said Swails, a jovial wife and mother who owns a gym and is head of the women’s auxiliary at the Mormon church in Lugoff, a Columbia suburb. “I mean, this is the Bible Belt.”
With one of their own leading smack in the heart of evangelical America, Mormons here know they are in a moment. South Carolina has a history of crowning Republican presidential nominees, and for a group whose historical narrative is all about persecution, it would feel affirming to see their neighbors vote Mormon.
But Swails’s reaction says a lot.
Her cheeriness is evidence of a common Mormon belief that theirs is a truth so inevitable it will eventually win out. But her low bar also reveals a guardedness that comes from knowing that many of your neighbors think you belong to a cult.
A new poll showed overwhelming support for Romney among Mormons. Among them are wealthy donors who have given him millions. But Mormons here say there’s no obvious evidence of that. The vibe is completely unlike the open cheering among Catholics in the run-up to John F. Kennedy’s securing of the nomination or the euphoria among African Americans for Barack Obama in 2008.
Although religious and political leaders in South Carolina say Romney’s Mormonism won’t be the factor it was even in 2008, no one is taking chances. Unlike last time, when Romney made a historic speech about his faith, this time he’s halting all talk of religion, and church officials are halting all talk of him (or fellow Mormon Jon Huntsman, who has since decided to withdraw from the race).
“In the South especially, there’s this resistance to highlighting our ‘otherness,’ ” said Terryl Givens, a Mormon and religion professor at the University of Richmond. “There is this ambiguity for Mormons when they picture a Mormon president. Do we really want to be mainstreamed? People have said to me, ‘Do we really want the entire image of Mormonism to depend on the performance of one guy?’ ”
Some of the optimism has to do with a cultural change Mormons have felt even since Romney’s last run, when South Carolina Republicans received Christmas cards in 2007 purporting to be from Romney and his wife, Ann, about polygamy.
This time, so far, the Mormon angle seems subdued. The anti-Romney camp has focused mostly on criticizing his record on issues such as health care and gay rights, and a poll of Mormons that was released Thursday said that although prejudice and misperceptions about their faith remain their biggest challenge, they are optimistic that Americans are ready for a Mormon president.
However, there are exceptions. Last month, the president of the state’s Southern Baptist Convention, Brad Atkins, called Romney’s faith a “cause of concern” for evangelicals, who in 2008 made up 60 percent of voters, a much higher proportion than in most primary states.