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.
But here in South Carolina, where conservative Christians make up a healthy portion of the electorate, up to 40 percent, the Christian Coalition is only one of several influential religious organizations in the state.
Bob Jones University, an independent fundamentalist institution in nearby Greenville, also represents a significant political force in this part of the state - and its adherents tend not to belong to the Christian Coalition (though they often back the same causes).
Their difference lies in the deep doctrinal divide between independent fundamentalists and the charismatic movement represented by the Christian Coalition's founder, the Rev. Pat Robertson. When Mr. Robertson ran for president in 1988, he did poorly in South Carolina, in part because of his religious differences with Bob Jones University.
But those religious differences haven't stopped Bob Jones people from backing Buchanan. Charles Dunn, a political analyst at Clemson University, says an important reason for that backing is the support the conservative commentator gave Bob Jones in its lawsuit over tax status and racial policies, a case that went to the Supreme Court. ''His Catholicism is not a problem, because he stood by them on the tax issue,'' says Professor Dunn.
Bob Taylor, a dean at Bob Jones University and a Republican committeeman in Greenville County, says that when Sen. Phil Gramm was in the race for the presidential nomination, ''a majority here supported him.'' Now, he says, in the upstate, a majority support Buchanan.
Pressure has been put to bear on regional political leaders with ties to Bob Jones U. One, say informed sources, backed Sen. Bob Dole, then, after some arm-twisting, switched to Gramm, and is now backing Buchanan.
Within the state Christian Coalition orbit, a debate has centered on whether to support Buchanan, who has more vocally supported Christian Coalition's social agenda, or to back Senator Dole, who has a better shot at unseating President Clinton. To demonstrate Dole's support among Christian conservatives, the senator's state campaign chairman, Chris Neeley, proudly ticks off names of local Coalition leaders who have endorsed Dole.
Professor Guth sees an emerging gap between the leadership of the Christian right - which, in a pragmatic move, is showing an increasing tendency to back more mainstream conservatives - and the movement's grass roots, which is leaning toward the hard-liners who seem more dedicated to the Christian cause. This could, he says, become a problem.
''In all social movements, leaders have to be followers,'' says Guth. ''They might have to retrench.''
Greenville County Christian Coalition chair Al Padgett defends his endorsement of Dole. ''He's conservative on the issues, he's with us in the Senate 100 percent of the time,'' says Mr. Padgett. Many Christians say they still haven't decided whom to back. Steve Enjaian, a Republican activist from Simpsonville, says he's troubled by Buchanan's association with people linked to white supremacist groups, but is leaning toward Buchanan anyway.
In the end, Buchanan's effort to win South Carolina looks to be a long shot. The latest poll that shows him 11 points behind front-runner Dole. But a strong showing here could influence other religious conservatives in the South's Bible belt.