Evangelicals Eye Presidential Race

Both John McCain and Barack Obama are courting evangelical voters. Mike Rose, senior pastor at the First Federated Church in Des Moines, Iowa, calls McCain a "difficult choice," and says he doubts Obama's ability to draw evangelical Christians.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This presidential election year, the battle for evangelical votes is more intense. In part because John McCain has had a hard time wooing the religious conservatives who flocked to George Bush in 2000 and 2004, and in part because Barack Obama is trying hard to woo Christian conservatives who traditionally distanced themselves from Democrats.

We decided to check in with a Christian conservative pastor we spent time with before the Iowa caucuses. Mike Rose is senior pastor at First Federated Church in Des Moines, Iowa. When we spoke late last year, he was having a hard time finding a Republican he was willing to support. Today, he told me he ended backing former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in the caucuses. Now, Pastor Rose says he is again struggling with which candidate to support in November.

Reverend MIKE ROSE (Senior Pastor, First Federated Church): Well, John McCain is a difficult choice for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which, over the years, he has not - for lack of a better term - courted the evangelical right. I mean, he's not really stood with us on a variety of issues. Some he has, some he hasn't. So there's some appeal, perhaps, but it's not a huge appeal.

NORRIS: You know, John McCain has always portrayed himself as a maverick. He has not always been in lockstep with Christian conservative ideology. But he is, right now, trying hard to hit those major touchstones on abortion, on family values, on gay marriage, on the commitment to appoint conservative judges. He's making the overtures, but he doesn't seem to be getting any traction or getting enough traction.

Rev. ROSE: Well, I think that perhaps the problem might be that that's it, he's making overtures and there's not a history of action behind those overtures. And I think there's concern that he may be just giving us the rhetoric in order to try to get the vote and then he goes on and does what he wants to do given the fact that he has proven himself to be a maverick.

NORRIS: The Barack Obama campaign says they can make a serious dent in the traditional GOP conservative, Christian conservative base. Is that realistic?

Rev. ROSE: Among those that I associate with, I have my doubts. I mean, he is a charismatic leader, but when we get right down to the substantive issues, he is still in a pathway that many of us cannot walk in. And I don't see what he can say that would cause me to want to go out and champion his cause.

NORRIS: Now, I know that you try not to focus so much on politics from the pulpit, but I've had the pleasure of visiting your sanctuary, and it's large and there are a lot of meeting spaces where people often gather. And I imagine that the conversation sometimes does turn to politics. What are you hearing from your - from members of your congregation about this presidential contest among these two men?

Rev. ROSE: Well, you're right. We try to keep our focus really on ministering our community and doing the job that we were planted here to do, and politics is not necessarily one of those. But, you know, I hear a certain disappointment in our choices and what we have as available to us. There is not necessarily the excitement for the two candidates that perhaps there has been in elections past. I've seen quite a bit of e-mail traffic where some are, you know, encouraging us to look at other candidates, third-party candidates or what have you, independent candidates.

My concern with the third party issues is simply this: that if you do not vote for McCain, it would appear as though you're casting a vote for Obama. And if you don't support Obama's policies then it seems like you're handing the campaign to him or the election to him. And so, I think that conservative evangelical Christians are finding themselves really in a position where it's just very difficult to get excited and - or even sometimes know exactly which way to go.

NORRIS: Pastor Rose, good to talk to you again. Thanks so much.

Rev. ROSE: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: Mike Rose is the pastor at First Federated Church, that's in Des Moines, Iowa.

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