thompson6.jpgAs his campaign ambles along the back roads of upstate South Carolina, it’s little surprise that many of the voters turning out to hear Fred Thompson are evangelical Christians. In these parts, Baptist churches are more common than any chain restaurant. As Thompson spoke at Yoder’s Dutch Kitchen in Abbeville the other day, the marquee out front was mum on about daily specials but did proclaim “Jesus is Lord.”
The biggest applause line in Thompson’s stump speech at stops like this is that Americans’ rights “come from God, not the government.”
Indeed, Thompson’s aides are the first to admit they view Mike Huckabee, the Baptist preacher whose main base of support in early primary and caucus states has come from evangelical Christians, as their prime competition here. They say Thompson’s modest increases in recent polls here have come at Huckabee’s expense.
But as Thompson continues to bank on strong support from religious conservatives for a top three finish here, he has nonetheless remained reticent about his own faith and is visibly less excited speaking about socially conservative causes like stopping abortion and gay marriage than about terrorism, government spending, or illegal immigration. That reticence and enthusiasm gap could wind up costing him dearly in the Palmetto State.
After offering rambling answers to questions about immigration and economy at Whiteford’s Giant Burger in small-town Laurens on Wednesday, Thompson parried a question about his views on “abortion” and “other moral issues” in 20 second flat. “I’m the candidate on the Republican side that has received the endorsement of the National Right to Life folks and the South Carolina Citizens for Life—I think that says it all,” Thompson said coolly. “I held my record better than anybody. I had a 100-percent pro-life voting record while I was in the Senate.”
The questioner, hungry for more red meat on hot-button social issues, threw Thompson a softball: “And what about keeping ‘In God We Trust’ on our money and keeping references to God…”
But Thompson just grew chillier. “Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely,” he interrupted. “Our country was founded on those things and those beliefs. It’s on our monuments and on our currency. That says it all.”
Next question.
Many national Christian Right figures have long expressed skepticism about Thompson after being initially bullish about him, with the drain in support due as much to his apparent lack of passion for social issues as to his actual positions. In an email briefing last night, Family Research Council Action president Tony Perkins wrote that Thompson is “struggling to interest [religious conservative] voters… when his manner suggests his own lack of passion for them.”
If Thompson was hoping to skirt the influence of evangelical power players like Perkins by taking his case directly to religious conservatives, he might run up against the same problems he encountered with their leadership. “I was hoping to get something more personal, more of a testimony,” said Amanda Capps, managing editor of the Laurens County Advertiser, after interviewing Thompson on his campaign bus following his appearance at Whiteford’s Giant Burger. “We want the right person to be in charge, and that starts with Jesus Christ.”
“I asked about his prayer in schools, and he didn’t’ say much,” Capps added.
Thompson, in a brief interview, said the only time faith comes up on the campaign trail is when reporters, not voters, ask him about it. “The only thing I hear about it are because of questions of people such as yourself [reporters] are asking, and otherwise it’s never an issue,” Thompson said. “People have a right to their opinions and a right to express their opinions, and it’s not for me to judge them on that basis and I don’t appreciate it when I’m judged.”
In fact, Thompson’s events are often filled with outspoken evangelicals who ask about “moral issues” and matters as diverse as Israel and keeping “In God We Trust” on currency as an invitation for Thompson to open up about his faith. “We don’t want someone in office who goes to church once a year just to get credit,” said Austin New, a 27-year old forester who attended a Thompson Q&A in Abbeville this week. “We don’t want separation of church and state.”
Earlier in the campaign, Thompson had made it clear that he’s not a regular churchgoer.
After seeing Thompson, New said he was still deciding between Thompson and Huckabee.
In an interview on Wednesday, Thompson’s wife Jeri defended her husband’s reticence about his personal faith. “Since when is humility a bad thing?” she said. “This is the fist cycle when humility in a leader… how would Abe Lincoln have fared, how would Eisenhower have fared?”
“But if we didn’t have faith, we wouldn’t be here,” she continued. “We have nothing to lose here but our integrity.”


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