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How McCain Shed Pariah Status Among Evangelicals

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How McCain Shed Pariah Status Among Evangelicals

Election 2008

How McCain Shed Pariah Status Among Evangelicals

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block. Today and tomorrow, we'll be hearing about the role religion is playing in the presidential campaign. Today, John McCain and evangelical voters. McCain has remade himself since 2000. Back then he was a pariah to religious conservatives. Today he's not exactly a messiah, but he has won over the evangelical base. Still, as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, rallying evangelicals may not be enough.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: To understand how far John McCain has come, travel back to the presidential primaries of 2000. McCain is flying to Virginia to deliver a speech, and he's mad because of attack ads sponsored, he believes, by evangelicals rooting for George W. Bush. Gary Bauer, an evangelical leader who is considering endorsing McCain, was sitting on the plane when a reporter handed him a copy of McCain's speech. He read it.

Mr. GARY BAUER (Evangelical Leader): I went up and sat down next to Senator 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.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: McCain gave the speech anyway.

(Soundbite of McCain campaign speech)

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): Neither party 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.

Dr. RICHARD LAND (President, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Southern Baptist Convention): It was very hurtful. It damaged McCain with a lot of the grassroots.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Richard Land at the Southern Baptist Convention notes that McCain's campaign unraveled shortly after that, and so did his relationship with religious conservatives. Until recently, evangelicals were tepid about McCain. Some, like James Dobson at Focus on the Family, said they'd never vote for him. Here's why. McCain doesn't have evangelical credentials. He's an Episcopalian who's attended his wife's Southern Baptist church for 15 years, but never been baptized. He doesn't have a personal testimony or conversion story. He almost never talks about his faith. And when pressed, here's how he described it to Beliefnet.

(Soundbite of Beliefnet.com interview)

Senator MCCAIN: It's been - I don't know if you say it this way - it's been kind of a plodding. I pray. I receive comfort. I think I receive guidance. I know I receive guidance.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: McCain does have one story which he tells over and over. When he was a POW, a Vietnamese captor loosened his ropes one day. Shortly after that, on Christmas, the soldier approached McCain in the courtyard and drew a cross in the dirt with his sandal.

Senator MCCAIN: And 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.

Professor JAMES GUTH (Political Science, Furman University): I think it's not a very revealing story. I think it's more about the faith of the other party rather than of Senator McCain himself.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: That's James Guth who teaches politics and religion at Furman University. He believes McCain has a genuine faith, just not what religious conservatives have come to expect from a Republican nominee.

Professor GUTH: He's also someone who is much more attuned to what scholars like to call civil religion - the importance of religion generically in some sense for the society - and doesn't seem to be very much attuned to theological nuance or, for that matter, the political nuances that theological nuances create.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: That has landed McCain in trouble. For example, when he needed support from evangelicals, he gladly accepted endorsements from ultra-conservative preachers Rod Parsley and John Hagee. Oops. Here's John Hagee preaching that God used Hitler to shepherd the Jews out of Europe.

Reverend JOHN HAGEE (Senior Pastor, Cornerstone Church, San Antonio, Texas): And they, the hunters, shall hunt them - that will be the Jews - from every mountain and from every hill and from out of the holes of the rocks. If that doesn't describe what Hitler did in the Holocaust, you can't see that.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Southern Baptist Leader Richard Land says the controversy showed how little McCain knew the constituency he was trying to woo.

Dr. LAND: Both of these guys hold positions which anyone that knows evangelical life well would know would be problematic for someone running for national office. I think that McCain - his advisers and he just didn't know the lay of the land.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: 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 he faced two problems.

Dr. JOHN GREEN (Senior Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life): 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 even persuade a few Democrats to support his candidacy.

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

(Soundbite of Saddleback Church civil forum)

Unidentified Announcer: Live, from Saddleback Church in...

BRADLEY HAGERTY: On August 16, McCain and his rival, 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 his evangelical audience wanted it. How to approach evil?

(Soundbite of Saddleback Church civil forum)

Senator MCCAIN: Defeat it.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: How to define marriage?

(Soundbite of Saddleback Church civil forum)

Senator MCCAIN: A union between man and woman.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: When is a baby entitled to human rights?

(Soundbite of Saddleback Civil Forum)

Senator MCCAIN: At the moment of conception.

(Soundbite of audience applause)

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Gary Bauer was sitting in the front row.

Mr. BAUER: Even before that was over, during the little breaks for TV people were, you know, patting me on the shoulders saying, oh, my gosh, Gary, he's so much better than I thought he would be. This is wonderful.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Two weeks later, McCain delivered his knockout punch to Obama's hopes for winning traditional evangelicals when he introduced his pick for vice president.

(Soundbite of Republican campaign rally)

Senator MCCAIN: Governor Sarah Palin of the great state of Alaska.

(Soundbite of crowd ovation)

BRADLEY HAGERTY: At that moment, some 250 evangelical leaders were meeting in Minneapolis. The jumped to their feet and cheered. One of them was James Dobson who told his millions of listeners a few days later...

Mr. JAMES DOBSON (Evangelical Leader): If I went into the polling booth today, I would pull the lever for John McCain.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Four years ago, Dobson's endorsement would be magic. But 2008 is different. Polls show abortion and same-sex marriage don't even rank in the top 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.

Dr. GREEN: White evangelicals have never been large enough to guarantee a victory. These groups are 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.

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

Dr. GREEN: So 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.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: How Barack Obama is teasing apart the religious alliance is our story tomorrow. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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