When 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.
During 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?'"
After 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.
"Neither 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."
"It 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 him.
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
The 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.
"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," McCain related in a TV interview in August.
"I 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.
"He's 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.
This 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 candidacy."
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.
On 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.
"Even 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
Two 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?
"I 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.
"What 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."
Jones' 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 implications.
"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.
On Friday, NPR will look at how Barack Obama is teasing apart the religious alliance.