Churches are as much a part of South Carolina politics as making a stop at the world-famous Beacon Drive-In in Spartanburg.
If a politician wants to win Palmetto State voters, who have chosen the eventual Republican nominee in every primary since 1980, the candidate has to start with the church leadership.
This election season has been no different, as candidates, and even some of their spouses, meet with top church leaders and presidents of colleges with religious roots, in an effort to prove they are the right candidate with the right values to earn the votes of South Carolinians.
"Religion is one of many factors that help primary voters in making their choice," said Matt Moore, executive director of the state's GOP. "However, I think most primary voters view a candidate's faith more in terms of how that candidate lives and leads.
"Do they support their faith with prayers, presence, gifts and service? Do they believe in the power of faith-based charity over government?"
Kendra Steward, who holds a doctorate in political science and teaches at College of Charleston, said the parties aren't as tied to talking about religious values in other states.
"In other states the Republican Party is not as closely tied to talking about moral or religious values," Steward said. "For any party to be successful in South Carolina, they have to have some kind of religious ties, and to a traditional Southern religion."
That can make it difficult for Mormon candidates such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Romney finished a distant fourth in the 2008 primary, despite the support of leading S.C. Republicans including Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.
The latest S.C. polls for the primary, scheduled for Jan. 21, show Romney and Atlanta businessman Herman Cain leading the way, with Gov. Rick Perry of Texas a distant third.
Some church leaders said it's hard to remain neutral when it comes to politics, but impossible to stay out of it altogether.
Religious voters in South Carolina played a huge role in the 2008 Democratic primary. Churches organized voter registrations, arranged rides to the polls and passed out candidate information to members of their congregations.
Again, in 2010, religion would be brought into S.C. politics as Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who was then a state representative, had to defend her conversion to Christianity from Sikhism.
"Certainly in a state like South Carolina, our strong evangelical community cannot be ignored," Moore said. "I've advised multiple presidential candidates to speak to those voters, and all voters, in their own voice. If you personally connect with voters, they are more likely to focus on the things you have in common, instead of the things that make you different."
Churches throughout South Carolina said they welcome politicians to visit, but not always to take the pulpit.
Seacoast Church, with a 100,000-square-foot facility in Mount Pleasant, is a frequent stopping point for Republican candidates speaking in the Charleston area, and U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., has addressed the congregation.
But the church, which brings in about 11,000 people for worship each weekend, maintains it is completely neutral when it comes to politics, though it’s impossible, according to Jack Hoey, the church’s chief operating officer, for church’s to stay out of politics altogether.
“Our desire of all of our people is for them to live a well-balanced, complete lives. Part of that is participating in society,” Hoey said.
Candidates are welcome at the church, but they don’t get special treatment, according to Hoey.
“If a candidate wants to attend services, we welcome them. But they don’t speak, and we don’t introduce or recognize anybody,” Hoey said.
Seacoast, which operates 12 campuses across South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina, does not endorse candidates or take a stance on political issues.
“The issue for us is how do you understand how God wants you to live,” Hoey said. “We teach those lessons and share that scripture, but people apply it differently, and that’s OK with us. We are a church of varying beliefs and political opinions.”
The energy at Redemption World Outreach Center is electric — flashing lights, high-definition televisions, a live band, singers, a drama team — all building up to a two-hour fiery service that's broadcast nationally.
The Apostle Ron Carpenter told attendees of his noon service on Sunday that Americans had no confidence, that many people would say they are just surviving.
The megachurch, which touts more than 15,000 members and whose mission according to its website is "to break poverty mindsets, to remove religious barriers, and to destroy the walls of racism that divide us and keep us bound," doesn't shy away from talking about politics or talking to politicians.
President Barack Obama spoke at the church during his bid for the White House in 2007.
Carpenter, who did not return calls seeking comments for this story, said during the service he follows politics and wants to learn all he can about the candidates and the people who represent the state.
Carpenter said that Rep. Scott, who had visited the church two weeks earlier and also addressed the congregation, sat down with him over lunch. He said they talked about many things, but mainly about the nation's debt.
"Everyone is just surviving, but the nation's Fortune 500 companies have stockpiled money and are afraid to spend it," Carpenter said during Sunday's service.
"People are in survival mode — I hope I have a job, I hope I have money. ... This ought to be our greatest time for God, a word from God saying you don't have to agree with the times."
His passion drew a few "Amens," "Preach it, Apostle" and "Hallelujahs," from the crowd.
Carpenter went on to illustrate by pointing to debt freedom that a church member had felt in recent weeks. According to his story, Carpenter said a businessman in the church had been saddled with a $100,000 tax bill. He worried about it, prayed about it and finally said he would "be rid of it."
Carpenter said afterwards the man received a letter from the IRS saying that he was relieved of more than $97,000 of the debt.
Carpenter told members if they want to drive a new car, live in a bigger house, work a different job — they had to change their mindset.
But does he tell congregants how to vote? Church members wouldn't comment.
What are Christians in South Carolina looking for in a candidate?
Renee Chapman, a member of Bibleway Church of Atlas Road in Columbia, said many candidates visit her church home, but that Pastor Darrell Jackson Sr. doesn't encourage members to vote for a particular person.
"He's there to give the word and change people's lives," Chapman said. "He'll never say you need to vote for this person."
Chapman said that Jackson, who has served in the S.C. Senate for nearly 20 years, does acknowledge visits from candidates and will introduce them to the congregation.
Alexia Newman, who attends Mt. Calvary Presbyterian Church in Walnut Grove in Spartanburg County, said she wants to see people elected that have a Christian worldview.
Newman, who serves as the executive director of the Carolina Pregnancy Center, said that while her pastor doesn't preach about politics from the pulpit, he does encourage members to look at all things in life from a biblical perspective, whether it be in politics, child-rearing or other aspects of daily life.
"I want people I share core values with in office," Newman said.
Newman said that this year, she has been very involved in the presidential primary as a volunteer for former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.
"It's the most I've ever been involved," Newman said. "I love it. I love the candidate I'm supporting because he sees a real need for change and has a heart for this country. He has always shared his values and he's taken hits because of it."
Newman said that she had an opportunity to travel with Santorum's daughter earlier this season and has enjoyed speaking on Santorum's behalf at events in South Carolina.
Newman said she thinks there are a number of people like her who carry their faith and their beliefs to the polls with them.
"Not a lot of people share my passion, but it's where God has put me and it would be wrong for me not to be involved," Newman said. "People of faith have a love for our country. You see a difference in the way people vote, because they want someone who thinks like them, shares the values they share."
The Rev. David Gallamore of Rock Springs Baptist Church in Easley might agree.
While our country wasn't founded on religious principles, Gallamore would argue it was founded on principles of faith.
"I think this nation was founded on faith principles and I think it's important to most people in this country," Gallamore said.
Gallamore said he felt we've gotten away from our spiritual roots as a nation and hopes that political leaders will return to their Christian roots.
"Our founders were talking about a creator and I think that even those who were not born-again Christians did believe in God," Gallamore said.
But in a nation born out of freedom from religious persecution, political candidates still find their own religion under the microscope.
During this election season, presidential hopeful and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's faith has been called into question time and time again.
But it's not the first time.
During his campaign for the 2008 election, Romney found himself defending his Mormon beliefs, instead of the issues the country was facing. Again and again, he would have to explain his faith, hoping to make fellow Americans realize his beliefs are not so different from their own. He sought out religious leaders, asking for their support — even winning that of Bob Jones III, the chancellor of Bob Jones University in Greenville, and the grandson for whom the school is named.
Jones told The Greenville News after the endorsement, that while his personal religious views differed from Romney's, "... I'm not voting for a preacher. I'm voting for a president."
This time around, Romney hasn't said much about his religion, even though it again has become an issue.
At a rally in early October, the Rev. Robert Jeffress of Texas told reporters after introducing Perry at the Values Voter Summit, "Mormonism is a cult."
Nearly a month later, Jeffress is still defending his remarks and shunning the criticism of others on various talk shows and in dozens of media articles.
Linda Abrams, a political science professor at Bob Jones, said that religion can be the No. 1 issue that disqualifies a person in the voter's mind.
She said Mormonism, in particular, gets a bad rap, because people don't understand it. Abrams, who describes herself as an evangelical, said that she was asked to participate in a survey group dealing with the issue of religion and politics.
Abrams said that a local marketing agency did the polling for Romney's campaign and one of the questions was how much would a candidate's religion play a part in how they voted.
Abrams said for two people in the room full of people, it was a problem.
Abrams said her sister is Mormon, so the way the religion is perceived is always of interest to her.
"In those two average citizens who reacted to his religion, they knew very little," Abrams said.
Abrams said that the biggest misconception is that Mormons don't believe in Jesus Christ and that they still take multiple wives.
"It's stereotyping," Abrams said. "They know the fringe elements."
Abrams said it's also a discussion that often comes up in her classes. She said she has students who will say they would "never vote for a Mormon."
Abrams said she reminds them it's a minority religion. The question she said often becomes, "if they would protect the minority religion, then wouldn't they protect my religion?"
Abrams said even with that discussion many said they would feel more comfortable voting for a Catholic candidate, rather than a Mormon.
"Conservative Christianity doesn't seem to make a difference," she said. "There's no one more for family values than Mormons, but it's a visceral reaction that I'm not sure Romney can overcome."
North Greenville University President Jimmy Epting in interviews after Anita Perry, the wife of a presidential hopeful, visited the campus, also told reporters that Mormonism was a cult, saying the teaching of the Southern Baptist Convention agree.
Abrams said it elicits an image that is unfair.
"In a cultural context, it conjures up fears," Abrams said.
In an interview with the Washington Post blogger Sally Quinn, Richard Land, head of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission at the Southern Baptist Convention, was asked about Jeffress' comments and the relation to the Southern Baptist doctrine. While Land said he did not agree with Jeffress' comments, he was more concerned with the image that it left on Southern Baptists. But when asked to if Mormonism was a cult, Land responded:
“I wouldn’t call it a cult but it claims to be Christian and isn’t. It’s theology is like a cult but socially and culturally it doesn’t act like a cult.” In that way, he says, it is more “mainstream. They don’t withdraw, they don’t live in communities, they’re not like Jehovah’s Witnesses or James Jones."
Will the fact that Romney or Huntsman are Mormon hurt them in the polls?
"It's an odd electorate," Abrams said. "No man is right on every issue."
Abrams said that Perry's numbers took a dive after he talked about his immigration policy. For many South Carolina voters, it was a turn-off.
"It reminded me of (former U.S. Rep.) Gresham Barrett's campaign," Abrams said. "One vote that he made while a congressman and people were done with him. They didn't look at the rest of his record."
But Abrams said if candidates deflect the issue to something else, a campaign can bounce back.
Abrams said that Cain has struck a chord with people because he says what he thinks. But she said that people want someone who is diplomatic, someone media-friendly, which brings her back to Romney.
"He looks the part," Abrams said. "His corporate experience makes him popular. He's got (N.J. Gov.) Chris Christie's endorsement and that will help him in Iowa."
Gallamore said he hopes that people will let their faith guide them when they vote for a candidate.
"I hope they'll pray about it before they go," Gallamore said. "I hope they will all vote and before they vote I hope they'll look at the issues very closely and pray about their decision."