Although Jewish voters will have little direct impact on the outcome of South Carolina’s presidential primary on January 21, a culture of religious tolerance and freedom is deeply embedded in the state’s history. And it is this underappreciated aspect of South Carolina’s political culture that we see playing out in this year’s contest, especially with regard to frontrunner Mitt Romney and the surprising lack of focus on his Mormonism. His most influential supporter in the state is, after all, Nikki Haley, a convert to Methodism from her Indian immigrant parents’ Sikh tradition.
South Carolina’s 2010 census showed a population of 4.6 million, a 15% increase during this century’s first decade, which includes an estimated 15,000 Jews, less than four-tenths of 1% of the total. But those small numbers hide what is a long history of welcome Jewish presence in the state, going back to the colonial period.
British political philosopher John Locke helped draft the original Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina before the initial settlement in 1670 that established Charleston. The provision for religious liberty exceeded anything existing in 17th-century Europe. Only Roman Catholics were excluded from the free practice of their religion, a reflection of the politics of Restoration England, which allowed King Charles II, for whom Charleston was named, to return to the throne. A provision that settlers believe in God covered Jews as well as it did Christians. Capitalist-minded Quakers, as well as Huguenots and Jews, were welcomed in a colony looking for settlers and economic development. Even today, one 12th-generation Charleston Huguenot family retains relationships with Jewish relatives in South Africa.
Francis Salvador, whose upcountry plantation grew indigo, became the first Jew ever elected to public office in the Western Hemisphere in 1774 — and the first to die in the American Revolution after his election to the colonial assembly and then to the state’s general assembly. Two pre-Civil War mayors of Columbia, the state capital, were Jewish. Judah P. Benjamin, an American senator from Louisiana, spent his boyhood in Charleston, where his family worshipped at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, the oldest continually active Reform synagogue in America.
Although there have been isolated instances of anti-Semitism in the state’s political history, Solomon Blatt — son of a small-town Jewish merchant and lawyer in rural Barnwell County — served 33 years in the mid-20th century as speaker of the state House of Representatives.
Jewish participation as political candidates has diminished in recent years, with a lone Jewish senator — a Democrat — in the legislature. Small-town Jewish merchants are essentially things of the past, their children and grandchildren having gone to college and become urban residents. But historic cultural ties remain, and it is not unusual for Christians to be aware of, and embrace, Jewish ancestry in their families.
It is this embedded tradition of religious tolerance that helps explain why Romney’s Mormonism has been less of an issue here than his “flip-flopping ”and his past as a venture capitalist. In a state in which white Southern Baptists outnumber Catholics 7 to 1, this background of religious tolerance also helps explain why Catholics Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum both are running ahead of Rick Perry, a Southern Baptist. Not only have the faiths of the candidates not seemed to be a factor for the state’s voters, but for each of the top candidates his strongest appeal is far from religious: For Gingrich it’s his dynamism, for Romney it’s his competence and for Santorum it’s his integrity.
South Carolina has always been framed as the primary where the evangelical vote makes its stand. But that hasn’t been the case. Even the recent endorsement of Santorum by a group of leading evangelicals in Texas has done nothing to lift him in the polls from third or fourth place. In the end, the strain of religious tolerance, so beneficial for Jewish political ambitions over the past three centuries, might be helping the Mormon and Roman Catholics, as well, or at least keeping their religion from being a liability.
And this is something to remember as we go forward past South Carolina and on to other Southern primaries. This state might be a bellwether for more than just the obvious reason — though it has picked the eventual winner in every Republican primary since 1984. It also might be an indication that our narratives about what matters to the country’s many evangelicals are wrong. South Carolina is teaching us that though faith is certainly a priority, this year it might not be the most important one.
Jack Bass is a co-author of “The Transformation of Southern Politics,” “The Palmetto State: The Making of Modern South Carolina” and two biographies of Strom Thurmond.