Outside the Mutts BBQ restaurant in Easley, South Carolina, last week, John Aistrop worried about the prospect of Donald Trump becoming president.

Aistrop described himself as a religious conservative. He has three children — 1, 3 and 13 — and said he's offended by Trump’s sometimes profane remarks on the campaign trail.

"Are they going to have to show the State of the Union after 10 p.m. on cable?" he quipped.

“I want to be able to sit my children down in front of the television and say, 'That’s the leader of our country.' How am I going to be able to do that?” said Aistrop, a supporter of Ted Cruz who drove from Salisbury, North Carolina, for a speech by the Texas senator.

But in South Carolina and elsewhere, even those who share such views seem to be setting them aside as they pick a Republican nominee for president.

In dozens of interviews before and after Trump's victory in the South Carolina GOP primary last weekend, many self-described religious conservatives said they are less guided by their faith this election than their anger toward the political establishment.

That bodes well for the billionaire real estate mogul, say political experts, and helps explain why he leads in many Southern states with large numbers of religious voters who will be going to the polls on Super Tuesday.

“We’re electing a president, not a preacher,” said William Mulikin, who celebrated with thousands of Trump supporters at a victory party in Spartanburg on Saturday night.

Leading to the South Carolina vote, Trump made stops throughout the state's Piedmont region, highlighting conservative issues such as turning back President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act and demolishing the Islamic State group.

Appearing in Gaffney and the textile city of Spartanburg, he spoke of not taking large contributions. Freed from special interests, he promised not to return lobbyists' phone calls.

Unlike Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Trump did not often speak of his faith — until provoked to do so last week when Pope Francis openly questioned his Christianity.

Still, according to a New York Times exit poll, Trump won about a third of South Carolina's evangelical vote — more than Cruz’s 26 percent or Rubio’s 21 percent.

More than two-thirds of the state's voters identified themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians.

“I’m glad he kicked the butts of the establishment,” Mulikin said on election night, after an overflow crowd in a Marriott hotel ballroom erupted when CNN projected Trump as the winner.

“I’m so sick of the establishment,” he said. "They never do what they say they’re going to do when they’re trying to get elected.”

Trump's candidacy is changing the profile of religious voters, said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University associate professor of political science.

“One of the things we're learning about evangelicals this election cycle is that they're more diverse than previously assumed,” she said. “No one expected Trump to do as well.”

Cruz may have stamped Trump as having "New York values" — a reference, at least in part, to the tabloid fodder made from Trump's previous marriages.

But that hasn't shaken the affinity for Trump felt by many evangelical voters, and it should not have been surprising, said Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University in Rock Hill.

“Thrice-divorced” Newt Gingrich, he noted, won the state's 2012 Republican primary, beating eventual Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

That could have been an early sign of conservative voters' anger at establishment Republicans, Huffmon added.

However, political scientists also see warning signs for Trump.

Rubio and Cruz combined had more evangelical support than Trump in South Carolina, raising the question of whether those voters will switch their loyalties to Trump should either Rubio or Cruz drop out.

Trump can keep winning primaries as long as he faces two or more other candidates in the race, said Richard Pacelle Jr., head of the political science department at the University of Tennessee.

But Trump is a polarizing force, and it remains to be seen how much support he can pick up from more faith-driven voters now behind Cruz and Rubio, as the field narrows.

"Say Cruz drops off," said Pacelle. "The appeal to his supporters is to coalesce behind the lesser of two evils — Rubio."

Eileen Spencer said she won't be among those voters moving to Trump.

As she awaited Cruz’s appearance at Mutts BBQ, she audibly gasped when asked about Trump.

“I don’t believe he has conservative values,” she said, noting that he once supported abortion rights but now says he’s anti-abortion.

Like Spencer, other supporters of Cruz and Rubio, as well as voters who say they are motivated by faith, spoke harshly of Trump.

Aistrop cited the story of biblical story of Saul, who was anointed a monarch at God’s instructions but then disobeyed God. Not to compare any candidates with Saul, said Aistrop, but he’d feel better with a president who follows God’s teachings.

Javier Cespedes, who was waiting for Rubio to appear at a hotel ballroom in rural Anderson, said the Florida senator could bring the party together.

He was also attracted by Rubio’s religious beliefs.

“Rubio is one of us,” said Cespedes, who drove a pickup truck pulling a large Rubio sign. “He’s honest. He’s a man of good moral character. He might not be right on every issue, but he’s going to do what he believes is right.”

He added, “Trump scares me. He’s been lobbying Congress for years” and would push for his friends if elected.

Though polarizing, Trump for now is riding Saturday’s victory, with enough voters like Robert Shephard, of Raleigh, North Carolina, willing to support him.

Republicans have used faith as a barometer in sending leaders to Washington, D.C., and it hasn’t accomplished anything, Shephard said at Saturday’s victory party.

When the pope criticized Trump’s anti-immigration stances as not “Christian,” Trump fired back that the pontiff's comments were “disgraceful.”

“I agree with Trump,” said Shephard, who said he is Catholic. “It’s like what somebody was saying at the bar: The pope drives around in a covered popemobile for security; he shouldn’t be saying anything about our protecting our security.”

If anything, Shephard said Trump's refusal to back down to the pope proves that he can shake up Washington, D.C.

“Who else takes on the pope and Apple in the same week?” he said, referring to Trump’s call for a boycott of the company because it refuses to help the FBI unlock a cellphone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters.

Others interviewed in South Carolina say they aren't turned off by Trump's Yankee pedigree, either.

“He’s got more Southern beliefs than a lot of people in South Carolina,” Charles McCullough said as he waited to see Trump at an appearance in rural Gaffney.

“He wants good people to be able to have guns, and keep guns from bad people,” he said.

 

Kery Murakami is the Washington, D.C., reporter for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at kmurakami@cnhi.com.