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Carolina Vote Tests Role of Religion In Politics of South

Catholic candidate draws Protestant crowds

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THE brightly illuminated edifice of the Evangel Cathedral looms large over Interstate 85 here in upstate South Carolina, a bastion of Christian conservatism.

Inside of this vast charismatic church, Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan holds forth like a preacher, decrying abortion, the Department of Education, and free trade. The hall is about two-thirds full and the response is warm but not overwhelming. A man in the back yells ''Go Pat Go.'' Others, afterwards, say they're still undecided.

But there's something remarkable in this seemingly unremarkable scene: These are devout Protestants receptive to, if not excited about, a Roman Catholic running for president. Times have changed since the 1960 election, when John F. Kennedy's Catholicism - and whispers about where his loyalties would lie - became a campaign issue.

Tomorrow's vote in South Carolina offer the first look through the stained-glass window of how religious allegiances in the South are likely to play out in the presidential race.

''I thought it [Kennedy's Catholicism] was a horrible thing,'' says Jim Fisher, a Buchanan supporter at the rally. ''But now I think that a person can be a Catholic and still be a believer, still go to heaven, as long as he has faith in God.''

''The fact that they're willing to go to a Catholic is a significant change in the Christian conservative movement,'' says James Guth, a specialist on the religious right at Furman University. ''The anti-Catholicism of evangelical Protestants is on the decline.''

Indeed, last fall the Christian Coalition, the most politically powerful organization of the religious right on a national level, launched a Catholic branch, designed to make common cause with Catholics who share the coalition's views on how to address America's social ills.

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