John McCain Is Losing the Religious Right

Deal W. Hudson
June 2, 2008

“Evangelicals feel like they have been served their divorce papers,” said one major Evangelical leader in an interview on Saturday. “They don’t know exactly what they are going to do,” he told me, adding, “There are going to be meetings all over the country in the next few weeks to decide our strategy.”

Events of the past few months are coalescing to convince Evangelicals, and some conservative Catholics, that the GOP has grown hostile to religious conservatives:

Republican Senator Charles Grassley (IA) called Congressional hearings to investigate the finances of mega-church pastors, including Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn.

A group of Republican-appointed judges on the California Supreme Court voted to legitimize gay marriage.

Republican presidential nominee John McCain explicitly rejected the endorsement of Rev. John Hagee and Rev. Rod Parsley, two nationally recognized mega-church pastors and televangelists.

It didn’t help that one week after the decision on gay marriage in California, McCain appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. McCain did say what religious conservatives wanted to hear: “I just believe in the unique status of marriage between a man and a woman, and I know that we have a respectful disagreement on that issue,” but that may not matter. Religious conservatives, outraged at the California decision, didn’t pay attention to what McCain said. What they saw was McCain choosing to go on the television show of a woman who is about to marry another woman. (DeGeneres will soon marry her girlfriend, Portia de Rossi.)

Government interference in religious liberty combined with government hostility toward the traditional family is precisely what started the Religious Right in the first place.

The Carter administration’s attack on the non-profit status of Christian schools in the South was the last straw for Evangelical pastors, who began their political organizing in the late 1970s. Add to that the counter-attack on the ERA and the post-Roe anti-abortion movement, and Catholics and Evangelicals suddenly merged into what became known as the “Religious Right.”

Since the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, the religious conservative vote has belonged to the GOP. When these voters were dispirited in 1992 and 1996, the Republicans lost the White House.

Like Evangelicals, Catholic voters are showing less affection for the GOP, primarily because of dissatisfaction with the Iraq War. Unlike in 2004, when the war did not affect the Catholic voter, Catholics are now much more aware of Vatican criticism leveled at the U.S. invasion and occupation. As Douglas Belkin reported in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, “Conservative Catholics now appear to be more concerned about the economy and the war in Iraq, and less motivated by abortion, the issue that has long kept the voting bloc aligned with Republicans.”

It must have been a great relief to John McCain and the Republican Party that Benedict XVI did not underscore his differences with President Bush on Iraq during his recent visit.

McCain faces a tall challenge. Evangelicals feel rejected, and faithful Catholics are confused. Evangelicals have seen McCain ask for their endorsement and then give it back to them. At the same time, many Catholics wonder if McCain’s support of embryonic stem cell research weakens his pro-life position enough to justify a vote against him on the basis of the Iraq War.

Obama’s weakness with Catholic voters may help ameliorate McCain’s concern about Catholic discontent over Iraq. But will the Catholic Democrats who voted for Clinton abandon party loyalties and support McCain? Obama’s extremism on abortion, along with his support for gay marriage, may remind them of why they voted for Reagan (and even Bush).

It’s doubtful, however, that McCain can depend on moderate Republicans and Democrats – many of whom are blue-collar Catholics – to win in November. Just as the Religious Right emerged quickly to support Reagan’s candidacy, it may just as quickly decide to challenge the GOP in some fashion before the election.

As another Evangelical leader told me, “We should not be led by Republicans – we are primarily a spiritual movement and should be influencing them.” Right now, the generals and the ground troops of the Religious Right feel as if their influence has lost. At the moment, they’re looking for a clear signal from the McCain campaign that he is going to make it a priority to protect marriage.

At present, McCain opposes a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage – he prefers states to make their own decision on the issue. A decision by McCain, in response to the threat posed by the California decision, to back a constitutional amendment would electrify religious conservatives.

Without a gesture of this sort, the McCain candidacy will not have the enthusiastic backing of voters who have provided the winning difference for the GOP over the past 30 years, and will face the prospect of a highly energized Obama campaign.

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