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.

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

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