Charles Pinckney likely would have been surprised.

The famed South Carolina delegate to the Constitutional Convention proposed that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

Although the state in 1778 made the Protestant faith its sanctioned religion, Pinckney's contribution to the Constitution, offered in the spirit of the Enlightenment, was meant to protect religious minorities from state oppression.

The provision -- Article VI, Section 3 -- passed easily.

Fast forward to 2010 and the GOP race for governor of South Carolina, where the rhetoric from the campaigns of Nikki Haley and Gresham Barrett is religiously charged.

Election observers, such as David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network's "The Brody File," and David Waters, who writes for The Washington Post's "On Faith" website, have noted that Haley has de-emphasized her Sikh upbringing lately while Barrett has introduced a new TV spot that characterizes him as "a Christian family man who won't embarrass us."

During the 2004 race for the state House of Representatives, Haley was not shy about her family origins, sharing with voters that she "proudly raised with her Indian traditions."

On his blog, Brody notes that language concerning Haley's religious beliefs on her campaign website has changed since April to describe her faith more forcefully.

In April, the site referred to "the power and grace of Almighty God." Now, the text is more specific: "My faith in Christ has a profound impact on my daily life and I look to Him for guidance with every decision I make. ... Being a Christian is not about words, but about living for Christ every day."

Haley, who has denied allegations of infidelity, was born in South Carolina as Nikki Randhawa, the daughter of Indian Punjabi immigrants.

She converted to Christianity in 1997. She is a Methodist.

A full voicemail box prevented messages from being left for her campaign manager Friday, but Tim Pearson explained the changes to Brody a few days ago, saying, "We are constantly changing our website."

"Nikki is a proud Christian woman," Pearson said. "Like millions of others, she found Christ early in her adult life and she has been dedicated to her Christian faith since the age of 24."

At a campaign stop in Mount Pleasant on Friday, Haley referred to "distractions" she refused to acknowledge, saying, simply, "I've been a Christian since the mid-1990s." Then she paid tribute to her parents.

Barrett's campaign adviser Todd Harris said the emphasis on religion has been there from the start.

"Gresham has been talking about the importance of his Christian faith throughout the entire campaign," Harris said. "In fact, more than five or six weeks ago, we started advertising on Christian radio stations, talking about how Christianity and his faith in God was the foundation upon which he lived his life and made his decisions."

When asked why the subject of religion was important to the campaign, Harris said it was a matter of honesty.

"You cannot talk about who Gresham Barrett is as a person and a leader with-out talking about his belief in Jesus Christ," he said. "It is central to who he is, always has been and always will be."

The Rev. Dr. Monty Knight, who retired as minister of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) last month to devote himself to pastoral counseling, and who is a strong advocate of church-state separation, said that candidates run the risk of compromising their religion by emphasizing it in the campaign.

"The more you trade on your religion, the less unique and valid it is," he said, referring to Matthew 6:6, in which Jesus says, "But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen."

Knight said running for office in South Carolina almost always means running, in part, on one's religious beliefs, but he said he is suspicious of those who feel obligated to profess their faith loudly in the public square.

The Rev. Clinton Brantley, pastor of St. Matthew Baptist Church in North Charleston, said he has no problem with candidates advertising their faith. In fact, he said, he likes to know where they stand.

"But it's also political," he added. "The rhetoric is good, but living up to the standards they espouse is another thing." In the end, he said, it's better to demonstrate one's faith than to talk about it on the campaign trail.

The Democratic candidate for governor, Vincent Sheheen, mentions at the bottom of his website biography that he is "an active and dedicated member of his church," but does not offer details.

Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition of America and a Charleston resident, said he wishes political campaigns would abide by Pinckney's injunction and leave religion out altogether.

"What I think we have in the race is what I call 'political Christianity,' where people feel the need to identify not only as Christians but as religious Christians to get votes," he said. "We should judge people by their stands on issues and their character rather than professed religious beliefs."

Rabbi Ari Sytner of Brith Sholom Beth Israel synagogue echoed that sentiment.

"I certainly value a person of faith and piety," Sytner said. "However, when I go to the polls, I don't look for the best Christian, I look for the best candidate. Namely, someone with honesty and integrity in both their personal as well as professional lives."

John Simpkins, a constitutional law expert at the Charleston School of Law, said the decision by the Haley and Barrett campaigns to emphasize religion presents a long-term problem for Republicans.

"If it's once again going to become a majority party (in the U.S.), it's got to reach out to non-Christians," Simpkins said.

David Slade contributed to the report.Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or aparker@postandcourier.com.