Last week I wrote about South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary and how Bob Jones III and about 250,000 evangelicals in this state were responsible for putting George W. Bush in the White House in 2000. This state’s Republican voters are undemocratic, unrepresentative of the national demographic, and dangerously superstitious. And yet they hold enormous influence in selecting their party’s presidential nominee by virtue of South Carolina’s traditional first-in-the-South primary.

On May 15, 10 white guys came to the Koger Center in Columbia to make their argument to be next year’s Republican presidential nominee. With Brit Hume of Fox News moderating the event, they debated on the University of South Carolina campus, a few blocks from where the Confederate flag stands in front of the Statehouse, the week after much of the state shut down for Confederate Memorial Day. No one in last week’s canned media event questioned the appropriateness of any of this.

One of the 10 white guys on that stage at the Koger Center last week will be the next GOP presidential nominee. But before that happens — if history is any guide — he must first win the South Carolina primary. Since 1980, no one has won the GOP nomination without first winning in South Carolina. The people making that decision will be overwhelmingly white and strongly evangelical. And these Jesus freaks are already moving behind the scenes to eliminate one of the leading candidates.

Let me state right here that I am not defending Mitt Romney. When his father ran for president in 1968, he went to Vietnam, came home, and declared that he had been “brainwashed.” His son might have a similar problem. The difference is that whatever Romney II was thinking and saying when he ran for governor of Massachusetts five years ago seems to have been reversed in his brain for the 2008 presidential campaign.

George W. Bush had a word for this when he ran against John Kerry in 2004: flip-flopping. Mitt Romney has flip-flopped on abortion, on gun control, and on gay marriage. In each case he has forsaken his old position to move closer to the religious right. He really wants to be embraced by these religious crackpots, though it is clear that they want nothing to do with him.

Mitt Romney is a Mormon and in the strange world of the religious right, Mormons are not Christians. This would not be an issue to most Americans, but to Southern evangelicals it is the litmus test any candidate must first pass before they will be considered for public office. (In the evangelical mind, Mormonism is a “cult.” This is their word for any group, Christian or otherwise, that they do not agree with. To Bob Jones and his followers, the Roman Catholic Church is a cult.)

A few days before last week’s GOP debate, a wave of anti-Mormon literature started landing in the mailboxes of selected South Carolina voters, according to the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.

The mailer does not mention Romney by name, but its intent is clear. The eight-page screed is titled, “Mormons in Contemporary American Society: A Politically Dangerous Religion.” It calls Mormon texts “hoaxes”; Joseph Smith, founder of the religion, is labeled a “gold digger turned prophet” and “the Mohammed of the West.”

“Like the prophet of Islam, Smith founded his religion upon prophesies and revelations which commanded him to become a polygamist and a warlord,” the mailer says. “Many centuries apart, these two men became the focal point of large religions that blurred the lines between religion, war, domestic life and politics.”

The unsigned tracts have no return address, but are postmarked Providence, R.I. They were apparently targeted to GOP voters in the Upstate, where the evangelical influence is strongest.

Some Upstate Republican activists profess to be “appalled” at the anti-Mormon literature, but they shouldn’t be. They have been in bed with these religious bigots for decades. They knew exactly what they were doing when they lured the evangelicals into the GOP tent in the 1980s with their anti-gay and anti-abortion campaigns.

The whole business is a reminder of the late Carroll Campbell’s first congressional campaign in 1978. He was running against Democrat and popular Greenville Mayor Max Heller. In the midst of the campaign, a third party candidate mysteriously appeared — a tow-truck operator and high-school dropout who never ran for office before or since. His name was Don Sprouse and he went around reminding voters that Heller was a Jew “who does not believe that Jesus has come yet.” Needless to say, Campbell won the election.

Mitt Romney would probably not win the GOP nomination anyway and certainly does not deserve to be president. But it is appalling to think that a good and qualified candidate could be blackballed from the White House by South Carolina evangelicals.

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