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Evangelical Christians, Mitt Romney and the real good news from South Carolina

The South Carolina Republican primary is a week away. Frontrunner Mitt Romney is once more taking a commanding lead in the polls, with 37%. Rick Santorum is at 19% and Newt Gingrich is behind him. What's going on? Will the front-runner maintain his lead?

If Romney wins South Carolina, it's hard to imagine him not winning the Republican nomination. But South Carolina is heavily evangelical, and Romney is, as we all know, a Mormon – a denomination not even considered Christian by 50% of Americans, let alone Evangelical Christians.

How will faith shape this all important primary contest? Are Evangelical Christians ready to support Mormon Mitt Romney? It seems that they are. This willingness to vote for the former Massachusetts governor speaks to an historic moment regarding faith in South Carolina, and by extension, in the nation.

Conservative Evangelical Christians, at least those who support Mitt Romney, are blazing an exciting new path – one which refuses the secularism classically connected to the left, AND also the religious dogmatism typically associated with the right.

These primary voters are figuring out how to articulate and vote along pragmatic political lines which preserve and respect their most deeply held religious values even when that means supporting someone with very different beliefs about issues they hold very dear. That’s big!

We may be graduating from “litmus testing” candidates over narrow issues, to principled pragmatism which appreciates that total agreement is less important than shared values -- even when they are rooted in different understandings of the world and The Word.

Some will ask why this is such a big deal – aren’t they all Christians anyway? Well, it’s a big deal precisely because, depending upon whom you ask, they – Mormons and Evangelicals – are NOT all Christians. And as much as many of us who see two groups, both of whom believe in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as being Christian, it’s not that simple.

The two groups have different scriptures, different authority structures, and distinctly different, if closely related, theologies and Christologies.

In other words, while I and almost half of America do consider Mormons to be Christians, the rest do not. And to the extent that the “rest” are figuring out how to see past that difference while remaining proudly attached to their beliefs, we are seeing a renegotiation of how faith shapes political decision making.

Since there remains a great deal of confusion about what it really means to be an evangelical Christian, the following might be helpful. Being Evangelical, does NOT mean towing a particular party line.

In fact, while the majority of those who identify as evangelical also identify as politically conservative or moderate, there is a significant minority who identify as politically liberal.

How is that possible? Because being evangelical is about how one understands God and the Bible, not the mandate to be a Republican or a Democrat.

Evangelical is a word which comes from the Greek, evangelion, or "good news." It refers to the "good news" of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Typically, Evangelical Christianity is marked by four features:

1. Being born again, i.e. having a personal conversion experience, either into the faith or into a new level of faith.

2. The centrality of biblical authority. While this often includes a commitment to biblical literacy and inerrancy, that is not always the case. The latter two are better thought of as features of fundamentalism, and while all Christian fundamentalists are evangelical, not all evangelicals are fundamentalists.

3. Emphasis on the death and resurrection of Jesus.

4. A commitment to sharing the Gospel with others.

And for those who are asking why any of this should even matter, why religious faith should even be a part of the calculation – why we should bring God into the voting booth, I’ll tell you why.

If you have a deep faith, and that faith is interested in more than your own personal salvation, and is also concerned about the world in which we live, then it will and should inform your politics -- left, right or something in between. That’s called having an integrated world view.

The notion that a person in power should not be overly-identified with any one religious institution, or certainly to be controlled by one, is a legitimate concern, but it is not about banishing their faith from their political thought, and the same is true for voters.

I agree about the mistake of having theological litmus tests. According to these tests candidates who do not pray as we pray are deemed unworthy of our support. It’s the difference between a theocracy and our democracy in which religious faith is respected, while church and state remain separated.

Theocracy IS something to be on guard against, and it seems that conservative Christian voters in South Carolina are increasingly able to do so -- that's how Romney is currently polling at 37%!

And as to those who say things like “why are The Evangelicals running things,” the response is simple: "The Evangelicals" aren't running anything.

For starters, there are multiple evangelical communities in America, but to the extent that they are unified around any given issue, cause or politician, they are no different from any other interest group in this country.

We are a nation of multiple and competing associations and alliances, all seeking to create the change we think we would most benefit the country, and hopefully protecting the rights of those with whom we disagree. That's not “running anything”, that’s America at its very best!

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.