How McCain Won Over the Evangelical Base

October 24, 2008 at 12:18 am Leave a comment

mccain-warren.jpgWhen it comes to evangelicals, John McCain has remade himself in eight
short years. The Republican candidate was a pariah to religious
conservatives during his run for the White House in 2000. This time
around, he’s not exactly a Messiah but he has won over his base.

To understand how much McCain has burnished his relationship with
evangelicals, travel back to the presidential primaries of 2000.

a flight to Virginia to deliver a speech, McCain was mad because of
attack ads he believed were sponsored by evangelicals rooting for
George W. Bush. Gary Bauer, an evangelical leader who was considering
endorsing McCain, was sitting on the plane.

Bauer recalled,
“And a reporter said to me, ‘Gary, I’m really surprised you’re going to
this event, given what’s he’s getting ready to say.’ And I said, ‘Wait
a minute, you mean he’s not giving his normal speech?'”

reading the speech, Bauer said, he “went up and sat down next to Sen.
McCain and suggested to him that he really needed to work on this
speech — or provide me with a parachute because this was a very bad
idea.” McCain made minor adjustments but left the tone of it intact.

party,” the senator later shouted to the Virginia crowd, “should be
defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the
agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton
on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.”

was very hurtful,” recalls Richard Land, president of the Ethics and
Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “When
you attack two of their leaders — and those two people were much more
important leaders in 2000 than they are today – well, it damaged McCain
with a lot of the grassroots.”

McCain’s campaign unraveled
shortly after that, and so did his relationship with religious
conservatives. Until recently, evangelicals were tepid about him. Some,
such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, said they’d never vote for

For one thing, McCain does not have evangelical
credentials. He’s an Episcopalian who has attended his wife’s Southern
Baptist church for 15 years but has never been baptized. He cannot
claim a personal “testimony” or conversion story. He almost never talks
about his faith, and he did not respond to several interview requests
from NPR.

When pressed, here’s how McCain has described his faith:

“I cannot tell you I’ve ever had a revelation from God,” he told Beliefnet. “It’s been … kind of a plodding — I pray, I receive comfort, I think I receive guidance. I know I receive guidance.”

McCain’s Faith As A POW And After

Arizona senator does have one story that he tells over and over. When
he was a prisoner of war, a Vietnamese captor loosened his ropes one
day. Shortly afterward, on Christmas, the soldier approached McCain in
the courtyard and drew a cross in the dirt with his sandal.

a minute later, he rubbed it out and walked away. For a minute there,
there were just two Christians worshipping together. I’ll never forget
that moment,” McCain related in a TV interview in August.

think it’s not a very revealing story,” observes James Guth, who
teaches politics and religion at Furman University, echoing criticism
that several others voiced. “I think it’s more about the faith of the
other party than about McCain himself.”

Guth believes McCain has a genuine faith, just not what religious conservatives have come to expect from a Republican nominee.

much more attuned to what scholars like to call civil religion — the
importance of religion generically, for the society,” Guth says. “And
he doesn’t seem to be very attuned to theological nuance, or for that
matter, the political nuances that theological nuances create.”

McCain’s Experiences With Evangelical Voters

McCain’s lack of experience with what Guth calls the theological nuances has gotten him in trouble.

year, for example, when the senator needed support from evangelicals,
he gladly accepted endorsements from ultraconservative preachers Rod
Parsley and John Hagee. Later, the media turned up Parsley’s views that
Islam is an “anti-Christ religion.” And they found televised sermons in
which John Hagee preached that God used Hitler to force the Jews out of
Europe back to Israel.

Land says the controversy showed how
little McCain knew the constituency he was trying to woo. “Both of
these guys hold positions which anyone who knows evangelical life well
would know would be problematic for someone running for national
office,” Land says. “I think McCain and his advisers just didn’t know
the lay of the land.”

McCain eventually rejected both
endorsements. But his problems with evangelicals lingered, even after
securing the Republican nomination.

John Green, a senior fellow
at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, says McCain faced two
problems: “One was how to unify his base, including these key religious
communities that have been so important to the Republican ticket in
past elections. But also how to reach out to independents and
moderates, and perhaps persuade a few Democrats to support his

In May, McCain began to court the evangelical
leaders he had once disdained, with the help of Bauer, his friend and
religious insider. All summer, McCain met privately with leaders and
stressed his credentials that he is strongly pro-life, anti-same-sex
marriage, a religious conservative by record if not by countenance.

Then he threw the first of two punches.

Aug. 16, McCain and his Democratic rival Sen. Barack Obama agreed to be
questioned, separately, by Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in
Southern California. During the televised forum, McCain served up
short, definitive answers, just as this evangelical audience wanted it.

Warren asked: How would you approach evil?

“Defeat it,” McCain responded.

How to define marriage?

“A union between man and woman.”

When is a baby entitled to human rights?

“At the moment of conception,” McCain said. And with that, the auditorium erupted in wild applause.

Bauer was sitting in the front row.

before the event was over during little breaks for TV,” he recalls,
“people were patting me on the shoulder, saying, ‘Oh my gosh, Gary,
he’s so much better than I thought he would be. This is wonderful!'”

Palin Boosts McCain’s Standing

weeks later, McCain delivered his knock-out punch to Obama’s hopes for
winning traditional evangelicals when he announced Alaska Gov. Sarah
Palin as his running mate.

At that moment, some 250 evangelical
leaders were meeting in Minneapolis. Land, who was there, says they
jumped to their feet and cheered.

“The first appointment in a
supposed McCain admin is who he picked for vice president,” Land says.
“And he picked someone who is a rock star among pro-lifers,
Catholic and Protestant. There’s not a pro-life activist in the country
who didn’t know exactly who Sarah Palin was before John McCain ever
picked her as his vice president.”

A few days after that announcement, on Sept. 2, Dobson publicly reversed course on his radio program, Focus on the Family.

“If I went into the polling booth today,” Dobson said, “I would pull the lever for John McCain.”

Four years ago, Dobson’s endorsement would be magic. But 2008 is different.

Does Religion Matter As Much In Politics?

think 2004 really was the high-water mark of the religious right in
America,” says Robert P. Jones, president of Public Religion Research
and author of Progressive and Religious.

Jones says the culture wars do not excite religious voters the way they used to.

we had in 2004 was a very artificial constriction of religion to be
about abortion and same-sex marriage,” he says. “We also had in a way
we hadn’t seen before an artificial constriction of religion to be
about one political party. And it’s not sustainable.”

polls show abortion and same-sex marriage don’t even rank in the top
five issues for evangelicals, much less other religious voters. John
Green at the Pew Forum says McCain has spent much of his time courting
conservative evangelicals — but at 10 percent of the population, they
can’t deliver the presidency.

“White evangelicals have never
been large enough to guarantee a victory,” Green says. “These groups
were really part of a broader coalition. And maybe the real difference
this year compared to 2004 is that the other pieces of the coalition
are not there.”

That is, traditional Catholics, mainline
Protestants and religious Latinos, who put George W. Bush in the White
House. In stark contrast to Obama, McCain has not courted those voters.
Green says if this traditional alliance is cracking, that has major

“We might — and let me stress might — be
on the edge of a change in faith-based politics that would be quite
different from what we saw in the last decade,” Green says.



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