Are Religious Conservatives and the GOP Heading for Divorce?

Deal W. Hudson
May 27, 2008

On May 22, 2008, a new era began in the history of what is called the Religious Right. Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain rejected the endorsements of two of the leading Evangelical pastors in the United States, Rev. John Hagee, and Rev. Rod Parsley. The impact of McCain publicly disavowing these two major figures will create a new alignment among politically active religious conservatives and the political parties.

In my recent book Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States, I wrote a final chapter titled, “Can the Democrats Get Religion, Can the Republicans Keep It?” I predicted the 2008 election would bring about a struggle within the Democratic Party to close the “God Gap,” while within the GOP those uncomfortable with the influence of conservative Christians would seek to push them to the sidelines.

The new emphasis on discussing personal faith among Democrats appears to be working. (It is noticeable, however, that the label “theocrat” has yet to be applied to Obama or Clinton, as it was to Bush and other Republican leaders who discussed their personal faith.)

Among Republicans, the move of religious conservatives to the campaign fringe has come about for two reasons, one intentional, the other accidental. When McCain was nominated, Republican voters knew that the Religious Right wasn’t going to play the role it had with Bush in 2000 and 2004. The natural affinity didn’t exist between these religious activists and the religiously reserved McCain.

The expectation remained, however, that through an effective faith outreach, the McCain campaign would bring reluctant religious conservatives into the fold. It would be a tough sell, but given the choice between Obama, the “infanticide candidate,” and the pro-life McCain, religiously active voters would come around.

Then the unforeseen happened: Hagee, the mega-church pastor from San Antonio, was charged with anti-Catholic statements by Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. McCain, hesitant to offend Evangelicals, waited over a week before issuing a statement repudiating Hagee’s comments. By that time, the damage was done to Hagee among Catholics, many of whom were upset it took so long for McCain to respond. Not only did the Hagee affair threaten Catholic support, but it also cast a shadow over the 30-year coalition of Catholics and Evangelicals that make up the religious right.

The unexpected apology by Pastor Hagee to Donohue, and their subsequent warm meeting in New York City, appeared to have put the controversy to rest. It didn’t last. The Huffington Post unearthed a video of Hagee describing Adolph Hitler as God’s “hunter” who forced Jews to create the state of Israel. This time McCain did not hesitate – the next day he rejected Hagee’s endorsement and added a rejection of anti-Muslim Ohio televangelist Parsley as well.

“Obviously, I find these remarks and others deeply offensive and indefensible, and I repudiate them. I did not know of them before Rev. Hagee’s endorsement, and I feel I must reject his endorsement as well.”

Hagee tried to beat McCain to the punch by withdrawing his endorsement. If McCain had simply waited a few hours, he could have graciously accepted Hagee’s withdrawal, thus accomplishing the same thing but softening its impact on Evangelical voters. Interestingly enough, Hagee’s former critic, Bill Donohue, immediately issued a statement defending Hagee against the ridiculous charge of anti-Semitism:

One week ago today, I met with Pastor Hagee in my office. I found him to be sincere, apologetic, and friendly. I also found him to be the strongest Christian defender of Israel I have ever met, and that is why attempts to portray him as anything but a genuine friend to Jews – one for whom the Holocaust is the horror of horrors – is despicable.

Controversial statements from leaders of the Religious Right are not new – Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson all committed their share. Never before, however, has the leader of the Republican Party made such a point of distancing himself and the party. McCain’s rejection of the endorsements, added to his already well-known reticence toward religious activists, places a marker in the political landscape that will last into November and beyond.

There will surely be those who applaud McCain for distancing himself from the “fanatics” on the Religious Right. They will argue that McCain will gain moderate support as a result. Maybe so, but much more important is the message this sends to the religiously conservative voters who have given the GOP its winning edge for nearly 30 years.

Ronald Reagan won Evangelical support with a now-famous line at a 1980 National Affairs Briefing held in Dallas: “I understand that you can’t endorse me, but I’m here to endorse you.” Some historians point to this moment as the official beginning of the Religious Right movement.

The unanswered question raised by McCain’s words on May 22 is whether he will be viewed by Evangelicals as explicitly reversing Reagan’s endorsement. How many Evangelical voters will feel rejected along with Reverend Hagee?

Within the past two months, McCain has unintentionally aggravated both Evangelicals and Catholics. Both groups had already responded to the McCain nomination with skepticism: Catholics because of McCain’s position on embryonic stem cells, Evangelicals because of his blistering attack on Falwell and Robertson after the 2000 South Carolina primary.

As things stand, I believe Catholics are still in play for McCain, if his campaign conducts a vigorous outreach. L’Affaire Hagee will be harder for his campaign to overcome with Evangelicals without significantly ramping up their relationship with grassroots leaders.

And this is no small thing: McCain will need religiously active voters over the next five months. It’s not the moderate voters who raise money, register voters, print and pass out voter guides, recruit their neighbors, and drive people to the polls. Moderates are… well… moderates. They don’t bring passion to a campaign.

The fact is, McCain’s moderates can’t beat Obama’s adoring groupies. With many religious conservative voters feeling benched, and others feeling outright rejection, the Religious Right will begin exploring other options for the investment of its energy. (Bob Barr, the newly nominated Libertarian Party candidate, may find himself the beneficiary of the present unhappiness.)

More likely, new leadership will emerge among religious conservatives propelled to the forefront by the national fight over gay marriage. McCain’s best chance to recover their support would be to make the marriage issue a priority of his campaign. Lacking that, it will take another surprising circumstance to bring the Religious Right wholeheartedly back into the presidential campaign.

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