January 16th, 2012
10:24 PM ET
Editor's note: Listen to the CNN Radio broadcast on South Carolina evangelicals:
By John Sepulvado, CNN Radio
(CNN) - More than 150 influential evangelical leaders went to a ranch outside of Houston over the weekend to pick an alternative to GOP presidential front runner Mitt Romney. They emerged backing former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
But in the early primary state of South Carolina, with voters scheduled to go to the polls on Saturday and candidates working the state furiously this week, local evangelical pastors are using their influence to rally church members towards salvation, not electioneering.
"You won't hear me giving any political commentary at all," says Lexington Fellowship Baptist Pastor Don Bell. "I mean, I'll never say never, but God's word is where it's at."
"I consider myself to be a conservative," says North Augusta Cornerstone Pentecostal Pastor C.L. O'Bryan. "But our focus right now is on our flock, not Washington politics."
South Carolina evangelicals have helped boost the candidacies of George W. Bush in 2000 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry are all trying to rally the evangelical vote in an effort to swing momentum away from Romney.
And it would seem evangelical voters could help them do just that. There's a deep skepticism about the former Massachusetts governor's Mormon faith and evolving position on abortion.
"I do not agree with him on every issue," O'Bryan says. "And I would like to see a president with a more biblical perspective."
Yet, while the candidates vie to present themselves as "true" conservatives, many evangelical voters have concerns about Gingrich's personal life, Perry's verbal gaffes, and Santorum's viability. Many born-again church goers in the state have resigned themselves to the outlook that Romney will be the eventual GOP nominee.
O'Bryan says he believes it's God's plan for the U.S. to "fall away" from Christianity, and is telling his congregation to prepare for "the end times," regardless of who is elected. Fellowship Baptist Elder Brian Hoyle in Lexington says unlike previous years, many of the churchgoers he knows in rural areas around Columbia are keeping quiet about politics and focusing on their own piety.
"I think there's a recognition that now there is only so much man can do," Hoyle explains. "I don't get much into politics."
"At this point," adds Fellowship Baptist's Bell, "if we're looking to Washington for answers to our problems, we're really in trouble."
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