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Bill Berkowitz: McCain gets religion

McCain gets religion


By Bill Berkowitz

McCain receives unenthusiastic endorsement from conservative Christian evangelical leaders

Over the course of the past few months, Senator John McCain, the Republican Party's presumptive presidential nominee, accepted and then rejected the endorsements of the controversial pastors Rod Parsley and John Hagee, after media reports about Parsley's vitriol toward Islam and Hagee's views that the Holocaust was part of God's biblical plan for the Jews to move to Israel.

He also met with the venerated Reverend Billy Graham and his son Franklin at the family's North Carolina retreat, courted conservative Catholic leaders, and got together with a bunch of religious right leaders in Ohio.

In early July, McCain -- who eight years ago had called the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance" -- finally received the endorsement of a batch of national conservative religious leaders.

And the endorsement of Focus on the Family's Dr. James Dobson may be coming down the pike.

Dobson reconsidering

Dobson, who has previously stated -- and repeatred several times -- that he wouldn't endorse McCain under any circumstances, appears to be ready for one heck of a flip-flop.

"I never thought I would hear myself saying this," Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, said for radio broadcast on Monday. "While I am not endorsing Senator John McCain, the possibility is there that I might."

Should Dobson endorse, will there be one of those highly-publicized get togethers between Dobson -- whose Focus on the Family radio program has been elected to the National Radio Hall of Fame -- and McCain, similar to event where Pastor John Hagee endorsed McCain (an endorsement McCain later rejected), or will it fly by as the endorsements of Schlafly, Burress et al did recently?

Evangelicals gather in Denver amidst coincerns over McCain's religious authenticity

More than 70 evangelical leaders met in Denver, Colorado and, amid concerns expressed about the state of their movement and the religious authenticity of McCain, they came to the conclusion that endorsing the Arizona senator was the only viable option.

The belated -- and less than heartfelt -- endorsement came as a result of concern among evangelical leaders that the election of Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic Party's presumptive presidential nominee, would be harmful to their bread-and-butter issues -- abortion, same-sex marriage and appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court -- and that an Obama presidency would relegate them to the political sidelines in terms of direct influence within an Obama administration.

"Our shared conservative evangelical values and our concern about judicial activism compelled us to unite around the presidential candidate who most closely aligns with us," said Mathew Staver, the person responsible for convening the Denver gathering.

"That candidate is obviously Sen. John McCain. United we will move forward to advance our values in the short and long term. We are committed to a transgenerational, multiethnic and multiracial conservative movement," added Staver, the head the Florida-based legal advocacy group Liberty Counsel and who originally backed the candidacy of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

"The alternative is so bad we must support John McCain," said longtime conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, the head of the Eagle Forum.

Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values in Ohio -- a group that is often credited with helping President George W. Bush win Ohio, and therefore the presidency, in 2004 -- told the group: "I thought the difference between Bush and Kerry was enormous," referring to the 2004 presidential election. "But the difference between McCain and Obama is like the Grand Canyon."

According to Charisma magazine's Stephen Strang, "More than an hour was spent listening to younger leaders tell the group that religious conservatives must be perceived 'to care' about social issues and the environment to appeal to young people who are voting for the first time."

Those in attendance included Schlafly; Burress; pastor and "Left Behind" co-author Tim LaHaye and his wife, Beverly, founder of Concerned Women for America; David Barton, founder of WallBuilders; Rick Scarborough of Vision America; and Don Hodel, a former interior secretary and former president of Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family.

Advice for McCain

In a separate interview with OneNewsNow, Mark DeMoss, president of The DeMoss Group, a high-powered public relations outfit that works with evangelical groups, suggested that now that McCain has received the endorsement from these leaders, he shouldn't do anything to diminish that endorsement, no doubt referring to the Hagee affair.

DeMoss said that McCain should "ultimately...be himself," and if he is uncomfortable "speaking publicly" about his faith, then he shouldn't "try to do it because it will come across more likely than not as insincere or contrived."

McCain recently came out in support of Proposition 8, the California Marriage Protection Act which states: "Only a marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognised in California." While Christian conservatives were happy to receive that endorsement, McCain has opposed one of their key agenda items: a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Regarding the issue of whether gays should be allowed to adopt children, McCain said he opposed gay adoption. A short time later, his campaign released a statement muddying the waters.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a powerful Washington lobby group, had some advice for McCain: "There is nothing 'straight talking' about the McCain campaign's response to the senator's statements on homosexual adoption," Perkins told the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody. "I hope he's able to get everyone on his staff on the right side of the road."

When asked recently by The New York Times about his Christian faith, McCain responded that he considers himself a Christian. "I attend church, my faith has sustained me in very difficult times. But I think it depends on what you call a quote evangelical Christian. Because there are some people who may not share my views on -- I mean, that covers a lot of ground. But I certainly consider myself a Christian."

Religion Wars: Obama vs, McCain

Sen. Obama has shown repeatedly that he is not uncomfortable talking about his faith. While he hasn't received the endorsements of longtime religious right leaders, he has made outreach to evangelical Christians, especially young Christians, an integral part of his campaign. He has met with a number of Christian evangelical leaders, he sprinkles many of his campaign speeches with Christian themes, he unhesitatingly calls himself a Christian, and he has already advanced a proposal to expand upon President Bush's faith-based initiative.

None of these efforts will necessarily translate into endorsements or votes from conservative Christian evangelicals. In fact, in June, Focus on the Family's Dr. James Dobson -- who has declared that he would not support McCain under any circumstances -- went after Obama on his internationally broadcast radio programme, accusing him of "deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview," and having a "fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution."

However, there are younger Christian evangelicals that are concerned with such issues as AIDS in Africa, poverty, and global warming who will no doubt be attracted by Obama's efforts at inclusion. And, as one evangelical leader who attended Obama's closed-door session with evangelicals pointed out, "The most significant thing is just the fact that the meeting was held and that several dozen prominent leaders took time to meet with Sen. Obama, who I believe won over the loyalties of many."

For McCain, the selection of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee as his running mate might help him close the deal with conservative Christian evangelicals. However, at the same time, it could hurt his attempt to appeal to independent voters.

*************

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column "Conservative Watch" documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.

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