GREENVILLE, S.C. — Trey Parker, 22, has devoted his life to God, but that doesn’t mean he thinks his president should invoke scripture on the stump.
Parker, who works at Clemson University’s campus ministry, said he is skeptical of Bible talk from candidates as Saturday’s South Carolina primary neared.
“It’s a little bit odd when they go to New Hampshire and completely, totally ignore it, and then come here and they’re devout Christians,” he said. “It’s really easy to see through that.” Parker said he is undecided which of the GOP candidates he will support.
White evangelical voters made up about 65% of South Carolina primary voters in 2012, according to exit polls. The upstate region — which is home to 35% to 40% of voters statewide — has the largest concentration of religious conservatives in the state, said Jim Guth, a political science professor at Furman University in Greenville.
But Matthew Thomas, chairman of the South Carolina Federation of Young Republicans, said the importance of religious appeals from candidates may have less resonance among young South Carolinians. Having worked for years with politically minded college students across the state, Thomas said the top issues on their minds tend to be civil liberties and student loans — not whether a candidate shares their faith.
“We always discuss the evangelical bloc as this one bloc and they move together,” he said. “But it’s not moving in one solid direction. I don’t think it ever has.”
At a rally in Anderson, S.C., on Tuesday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has emphasized outreach to evangelicals, concluded with a verse from Second Chronicles that had the packed civic center whispering the verse in unison. Ben Carson used scripture twice during a Greenville town hall hosted by CNN on Wednesday. But at a rally in the same city on Thursday morning, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio stuck to more secular messages.
Anna Edwards, an 18-year-old evangelical Christian high school student who attended the Rubio rally, said although a candidate’s faith is important to informing her vote, she appreciates that Rubio reins it in.
“It’s a hard balance of not wanting to come across as too forceful with your religion but also letting your voters know that your religion is important to you,” said Edwards, who is from Greenville. “When you shout condemnation at people it doesn’t work very well.”
The front-runner in South Carolina, Donald Trump, has stumbled at times when discussing his faith, as when he referred to Second Corinthians as 2 Corinthians in a speech at Liberty University last month.
A recent CBS/YouGov showed that while 42% of South Carolina Republicans said they supported Trump, his support was much lower among those ages 18 to 29.
Although some young evangelicals are turned off by the injection of faith into their state’s primary, Elliott Kelley, a sophomore at Bob Jones University, said Cruz’s displays of religious devotion were a large part of the reason he began volunteering for the senator’s campaign.
“It’s not just a talking point. It’s something he believes in,” said Kelley, who is a national co-chair for Millennials for Cruz.
And while Kelley said he knows voters are not tasked with electing a “preacher in chief,” he sees a candidate’s religion as something that informs every aspect of his policies.
But to Parker, the Clemson graduate without a clear favorite, the future president’s faith should be left outside the doors of the Oval Office.
Asked whether a candidate needs to at least identify as Christian to receive his vote, Parker answered with scripture: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”