There are few Catholics in South Carolina, the reddest of red states, but that is changing fast

Catholics and Evangelicals make strange bedfellows. So it was unexpected here in South Carolina that Newt Gingrich, a hopeful Republican candidate and a Catholic convert, won the state’s presidential primary. In this region in the heart of the Bible Belt where people wear their religion on their sleeves, it was a surprise that a man who boasts that he is a devout Catholic should pull off a decisive victory.

Interestingly, it was 52 years ago that John F Kennedy, another proud Catholic, won the state’s Democratic primary to go on to become the first Catholic president of the United States. Back in 1960, here in the reddest of red states, known for its Evangelical zeal and conservatism, Kennedy’s opponents used the strategy that the pope would be guiding presidential decision-making. Then, as everyone knows, these fear tactics exploiting religious prejudice were ineffective and Kennedy won.

Religion was again used in the present pre-election campaign. The faith of Gingrich’s main opponent, Mitt Romney, a Mormon, became the target of public relations and media. Gingrich seemed to be able to sway voters by telling them that the Mormon religion, which bans drinking and dancing, is a cult and does not espouse the traditions normally associated with “conservative” American values.

It is not to be forgotten that South Carolina is the state which fired the first salvos that started the American Civil War, the 150th anniversary of which is presently being commemorated.

Evangelicals may have the most vocal presence in America, but Catholics, make up 25 per cent of the population, still outnumber them. Indeed, Catholics make up the largest denomination of any religion in the United States. Yet here in South Carolina, where Gingrich won the primary, Fr Gregory Wilson, who runs the Catholic church in Aiken, the large town often known as “the horse capital of America”, where I am staying, was also surprised by Gingrich’s victory. Stressing that the percentage of Catholics in South Carolina was extremely low compared to the national average, he commented: “In this state Catholics only make up 4.3 per cent of the population. But we are growing fast.”

Although the numbers of Catholics in South Carolina are dramatically below the national average the increase in numbers is impressive. As recently as 1990, before the influx of northern retirees, Catholics comprised only 1.7 per cent of the population in South Carolina. In Aiken, church-attending Catholics are expanding at such a rate that some Masses are held in the church hall with as many as 700 present. Despite the national economic downturn, in just a few years the congregation have raised well over half the $7m (£4.4m) needed to build a much larger church.

Fr Gregory spoke about of the outward emblems of faith which I, like other visitors, have also noticed here in the Bible Belt. These include car bumper stickers with Jesus messages, the fish emblem representing Jesus, pro-life messages and roadside Crosses, the numerous mega-churches sprouting up across the landscape and religious messages merged into people’s gardens. Other explicit statements of faith are the common sight of people praying before a meal in restaurants and men, as well as women, wearing crosses.

They are not alone. Anyone watching the Australian Open tennis championship on television will have noticed that the man who won, Novak Djokovic, a Serbian Orthodox Christian, apart from displaying a relatively large gold cross around his neck during matches, also wears a black prayer bracelet.