The Rapture Index, which bills itself as "the prophetic speedometer of end-time activity," is off the charts. It stands at 182, just two points below its all-time high, set last August.

The index is an attempt to conflate current global turmoil with Biblical eschatology. The website that tracks this says any number higher than 160 means "fasten your seatbelts."

The end is nigh, in other words, and evangelical Christians take that sort of thing seriously.

Many of them believe the violent tribulations described in Revelation are nearly upon us, and that only those who have accepted Christ into their hearts will be "raptured" to heaven and spared the unholy maelstrom that will be unleashed on Earth.

South Carolinians, who may very well decide the Republican nominee for president this year, think more about such things than most Americans.

According to the Pew Foundation, nearly everyone in the Palmetto State is a Christian, and nearly half its residents are evangelical.

If you doubt that statistic, consider this: South Carolina is about to start offering crosses on its vanity licence plates.

'Mormonism is an issue'

All this Deep South religiosity is not wonderful news for Mitt Romney.


Republican front-runner Mitt Romney stands in front of the Palmetto State flag in Columbia, S.C. in January 2012. (Reuters)

Because not only do hardline conservatives consider him a liberal, flip-flopping, secretly pro-choice and pro-gay, big-government socialist, the evangelicals among them consider him some sort of heretic.

He is a Mormon, and "for most Christians, Mormonism is an issue," Billy Graham's son Franklin told the New York Times a few days ago.

This may come as a surprise to, say, Presbyterians, but evangelical leaders here long ago awarded themselves the right to decide who the real Christians are.

Brad Atkins, president of the 600,000-member Southern Baptist Convention, was even clearer: "I cannot define Mormonism as Christianity," he told the Wall Street Journal, "and that definitely will affect my vote."

Never mind that the full title of Romney's religion is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or that he's performed the obligatory two years of missionary work in the name of Jesus.

And never mind that observant Mormons, unlike the Baptists, who dominate the South Carolina churchscape, tend to walk the walk. Their work ethic and devotion to religious principle is legendary.

None of the detail matters. For many evangelicals, Mormons are just a cult.

The man in the grey flannel suit

I won't get into the reasons here. They have to do with doctrinal differences that sound loopy to a disinterested observer.

Besides, how do you define a cult, except in numbers of adherents?

For centuries, Catholics regarded Protestantism this way.

But South Carolina is Romney's world right now. He's trying to persuade voters there to clinch him as the Republican presidential nominee.


Is Mitt Romney a sure thing to win the Republican nomination? Have your say.

His strategy is to avoid talk of religion altogether, and present himself as the man in the grey flannel suit.

He tends to rely on data and statistics and percentages in making his arguments. He is disinclined and temperamentally unsuited to talk about whether he will be sitting up in heaven during the rule of the Antichrist, or whether humans co-existed with dinosaurs, or whether evolution is "just another theory."

He certainly doesn't sport a fish sticker on his bumper, or its sequel, a big fish gobbling up another fish that has sprouted legs. (Don't ask, these are culture-war avatars that just don't feature in Canada or Europe.)

But religious bigotry — sorry, but that's what it is — is just one force working against Romney in South Carolina.

The dark side of American politics

In its long history, South Carolina has often represented the dark side of American politics; a stew of religious fervor, racial prejudice and dirty deeds.

It was in South Carolina in 2000 when George W. Bush's acolytes created their infamous push-poll whisper campaign against their Republican rival: "Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain if you knew that he fathered an illegitimate black child?" (The McCains had adopted a dark-skinned daughter from Bangladesh.)

South Carolina is also a home to the other pillar of the Republican right, the Tea Party, and its adherents loathe Romney, too.

Tea Partiers regard Romney as a RINO — a Republican in Name Only — if for no other reason than the public health-care program he signed into law as governor of Massachusetts.

Conservatives contemptuously refer to it as "Romneycare," in much the same disgusted tone they use to describe president Obama's signature achievement as "Obamacare."

Who else?

This weekend, Christian conservative leaders intend to huddle in Texas, and hope to emerge united behind a single right-wing champion.

Tea Partiers, who are more interested in disemboweling government than in contemplating WWJD (what would Jesus do), share that political goal.

Both groups believe that if it becomes a two-man race, Romney can be stopped. The problem is finding that other guy.

Ron Paul, the second strongest performer in the race so far, is a radical libertarian and an isolationist.

He is truly laissez-faire. He wants to do things like legalize recreational drugs. Republicans, whatever they might believe about themselves, are in the end anything but laissez-faire.

This is a party that wholeheartedly believes in state intervention to correct the louche excesses of the left (abortion, drugs, gay sex, etc.)

Rick Santorum, the emphatically non-libertarian fundamentalist Catholic, best known for his trenchant anti-gay and anti-abortion views, would be Barack Obama's dream opponent.

As the conservative columnist David Frum put it, "birth control is still pretty popular outside Iowa."

Newt Gingrich? A bitter cup of coffee, that fellow. He's a recidivist adulterer who has publicly pledged not to philander again; a Washington insider who's become a multi-millionaire because of his connections; and a man who has taken positions (like fighting against global warming) hated by the Republican base.

Most recently, he was the candidate who unleashed attack ads portraying Mitt Romney as a pitiless corporate raider who took over companies and laid off working men and women during his time as a money manager at Bain Capital in the 1980s and early '90s.

That attack line might tap into the anti-Wall Street anger prevalent in America today, but it also angers his party's right-wing base.

Conservative opinion leaders have accused Gingrich of attacking capitalism itself and of aiding the Occupy Wall Street movement, in the process providing Barack Obama with advertising fodder for the general election.

Absent an obvious champion, The Washington Post this week reported that the Republican base is hoping against hope for the late entry of some alternative, purist saviour.

Good luck. Republican stars like former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took one look at the primary freak show and demurred.

Meantime, polling has Romney leading in South Carolina, albeit not by a wide margin. That would suggest some voters there have decided the electability test trumps the purity test.

If that trend holds until primary day, Jan. 21, the Tea Party and the Christian conservatives, raging and stomping, will probably get precisely the nominee they didn't want: a fiscal conservative from Wall Street with moderate social views who doesn't go to their church, but may actually be able to beat Barack Obama.

Mind you, there's more than a week to go and the self-proclaimed forces of decency are gathering on the plains of South Carolina for the great battle.

By the time it's all over, we'll see how much power evangelicals and Tea Partiers really have in this country.