Pastor Kevin Baird of Charleston's Legacy Church admonished the state Senate on Wednesday for not passing an abortion ban this session. Churches are expected to play an active role in South Carolina's upcoming elections. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

COLUMBIA — When Gov. Henry McMaster campaigned last fall at Bob Jones University — the Greenville fundamentalist Christian college that's a popular stop for Republican politicians — he touted the abundance of churches across the state.

On a 140-mile drive from his home in Columbia to Pawleys Island on the Georgetown County coast, McMaster said he personally counted 83 churches along the route.

"I'm not sure if that's a world record but that's something real good and comforting to ride down those country roads and see all those churches," McMaster said. "That's one reason we're strong." 

Weeks away from a highly competitive GOP gubernatorial primary, all of the Republican candidates are flexing their Christian muscles in attempt to woo the Palmetto State's more religious voters who make up a significant and vocal portion of the party's base.

Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant earned a reputation for wearing his faith on his sleeves during his 13 years in the state Senate where he had long been one of the most ardent proponents for a bill that would ban all abortions in the state with no exceptions.

Mount Pleasant attorney Catherine Templeton, a former two-time state agency director, has said that Christians are "under attack" and must fight to have their beliefs taught in South Carolina schools. She posts a Bible verse on Sundays.

Along with his status as a Marine veteran, Greenville businessman John Warren regularly highlights his Christian faith in his TV ads across the state.

Former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill has cited his own Christian upbringing as his reason for signing a pledge to support the abortion ban bill.

When former S.C. GOP chairman Chad Connelly left to become the national faith engagement director at the Republican National Committee, he said he was constantly pushing chairman Reince Priebus to get the party more actively involved in courting voters based on their Christian beliefs.

"It's a massive deal," Connelly said. "I believe that evangelicals in particular and the faith community in general is probably the most untapped, under-appreciated voting segment in American politics today."

More than pro-life

Pro-life policies have often been a cornerstone of church political activism.

Now, all of the Republican candidates have said they would support the abortion ban, a sign of the importance of pro-life credentials in the race. Supportive pastors say one way the candidates will be able to distinguish themselves amongst a like-minded crowd will be to point to their track record.

With little to separate the GOP contenders on abortion issues, Connelly said they should not focus solely on that as they look to sell themselves to the state's most faithful voters.

"The truth of the matter is (churchgoers) pay taxes, they drive on the roads, they care about immigration and national defense, they care about all types of stuff," Connelly said. "Political people try to pigeonhole them. That's a mistake."

Evangelical voters make up a significant proportion of the turnout in GOP primaries around the country. But in South Carolina the impact can be particularly pronounced. In the state's 2016 Republican presidential primary, evangelicals accounted for almost three-quarters of the vote.

Under a provision in the federal tax code known as the Johnson Amendment, nonprofit organizations like churches cannot explicitly endorse or oppose political candidates. The 64-year-old measure was almost scrapped in the GOP tax overhaul but ultimately remained.

That has not stopped churches from urging parishioners to take to the polls and consider their Christian values when doing so.

The Rev. Kevin Baird, the conservative lead pastor at Charleston's Legacy Church, said Christian leaders around the state are encouraging followers to get engaged with the political process, which some Republicans fear has languished since the days of the Moral Majority in the 1980s. 

As a demonstration of the church's role in state politics, Baird and several other pastors held a news conference in the Statehouse last week admonishing senators for not passing an abortion ban this session.

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"The church is vital to participating in the political process and codifying public policy because, I don't want it to sound arrogant, but we believe our worldview is the best one for the most people to flourish under," Baird said.

'Pastors are multipliers'

State Sen. Darrell Jackson, a Hopkins Democrat and pastor at Bible Way Church of Atlas Road, suggested that Republicans who believe they have a leg up with Christian voters are only thinking about white evangelicals.

“We live in parallel universes," Jackson said. "When it comes to African-Americans, even those who are very conservative religiously are still not inclined to be with Republicans."

Skepticism towards the GOP among religious African-American voters, Jackson argued, stems from a view that "we certainly understand the importance of our faith but we believe our faith dictates that we reach out and help those who are less fortunate.”

While many black churchgoers are also pro-life, Jackson said Democrats have an opportunity to make inroads if they are authentic about their beliefs.

"If you listen to what some Republicans say, you'd think Christians and people of faith are only concerned about one issue," Jackson said. "But I always tell people, you have to care for the child after they leave the womb also. It seems like all the compassion and concern goes away when they're no longer a fetus."

While the three Democratic candidates for governor have not put as much public focus on their religious beliefs, Florence antitrust attorney Marguerite Willis and her running mate, state Sen. John Scott of Columbia, have already visited Jackson's church. Jackson expects more to come soon.

As candidates look for any possible edge in both parties' June 12 primaries, Connelly said he would advise them not to take the Christian community for granted.

"You may discount the faith community but pastors are multipliers," Connelly said. "Don't treat them like a datapoint. They're a mouthpiece, and if they find a candidate they believe most closely reflects their values, they will go to bat for you."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina statehouse and congressional delegation. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.