John McCain and the Evangelicals

The decades-long relationship between John McCain and evangelical Christians has had more ups and downs than a Coney Island roller coaster. There is little question that during his 2000 campaign, McCain relished his very public conflicts with the leadership of the evangelical base, and he made his list of Christian activist enemies even longer during his push for Campaign Finance Reform. Yet with the pressing need to unite the varied factions of the GOP against a formidable Democratic machine, McCain needs evangelicals on his side, now more than ever. The question becomes, can Huck’s Army be convinced to come along for a ride on the ”Straight-Talk Express”?

The three most recent presidential contests prove that the polling booth strength of evangelical voters should not to be underestimated. In 2000, Karl Rove said unequivocally that the reason for the nail-bitingly close result was that, according to his estimates, four million evangelical voters stayed home unexpectedly — and he vowed it would never happen again. According to the exit polls in 2004, George W. Bush won 79 percent of the 26.5 million evangelical voters who came to the polls — compared to 52 percent of the 31 million Catholic voters — making up his largest voting bloc. This year, Gov. Mike Huckabee has consistently confounded the oddsmakers due in large part to his overwhelming support among self-identified evangelical Christians.

The voters who make up “Huck’s Army” are ones McCain will need, not just in November, but as activists and supporters at the state level in the months ahead. In an election that will almost certainly see a significant rise in Democratic turnout for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, McCain must match the Bush 2004 numbers as closely as possible in order to win. This could be a difficult task when megachurch leaders such as Rick Warren publicly embrace Obama, and longtime leaders including Dr. James Dobson declare that they cannot vote for McCain under any circumstances.

Part of the complicating factor for McCain is that evangelicals are no longer the straightforward pro-life, pro-family, pro-marriage constituency they once were. The candidacy of Barack Obama appeals to many of them — on the issues of social justice and global warming — but in style more than in substance. In a contest where McCain is pitted against Obama, he will have to keep the drumbeat going on the Illinois Senator’s votes for partial-birth abortion and his aggressive acts to kill the Born Alive Infants Protection Act in Illinois. Because of Obama’s “post-partisan” rhetoric, many otherwise politically inactive voters assume he is a moderate. As one evangelical academic recently told me: “When I tell people [Obama] is an utterly garden variety leftist, they are shocked.”

Another personal complication for McCain is that – unlike both Bush and Huckabee — he has not shown himself to be particularly comfortable talking to the public about his faith. In 1999, McCain was the only candidate not to reference Christ in the Iowa debate where Bush tapped Jesus as his favorite philosopher. McCain’s outreach to evangelicals in the intervening years has often seemed strained, and compared to an Old Testament-drenched speaker like Huckabee, with his widow’s mite and five smooth stones, McCain is positively unchurched. This will need to change — through personal interviews with evangelical publications and other faith-friendly outlets — and testimony at many of the evangelical Sun Belt Latino denominations who will provide the Senator with a friendly and ethnically diverse audience. Huckabee himself, assuming he does not get the Vice Presidential nod, could be a great asset as well as an ambassador to the evangelical community.

On substance, the advantages are ultimately McCain’s. There is simply not one policy area where Obama or Clinton are closer to the policy views of a majority of evangelicals. On the environment, on torture, on abortion, on the war, on education, on marriage, and on the role of government — in every area, McCain is closer to the mainstream of evangelical opinion. It would thus be a triumph of the race, gender, or style card — with, perhaps, a soupçon of white suburban guilt — for evangelical voters to break in any direction but right.

And for their part, McCain campaign insiders do not believe that evangelicals represent as great a challenge. “I don’t believe this is going to be as difficult as people seem to think it is. I believe there is a disconnect between the "talking heads" and the people in the trenches,” says Marlys Popma, former President of Iowa Right to Life and Executive Director of the Iowa Family Policy Center, who has been McCain’s point-woman for state-level evangelical and family groups. “Conservatives, including evangelical conservatives, want less government. We believe that Government and in this case the presidency is really only supposed to do a few things, two of them being: protecting American citizens, and appointing and commandeering the confirmation of qualified judges.”

“John McCain is a stellar candidate on both counts. When the rancor subsides, this will become more and more clear and the difference on these two issues — judges and the war on terror — between John McCain and either Obama or Clinton will become so frighteningly clear that evangelical conservatives will easily see that John McCain is not only superior to the Democrats but has been superior on these counts all along.”

In the larger sense, the candidacy of John McCain represents a last hurrah for the old mainline, the centrist Christian denominations that have declined steadily for the last four decades and are now on the edge of extinction. His faith is a private matter to him, in a way that seems an odd political throwback to roughly a third of the GOP coalition, particularly its most youthful element.

The Pew Research Center’s polling data reveals how isolated McCain’s position is becoming as America’s religious trends shift: while the Millennial generation of voters is one of the most agnostic on record at 19%, they are also the most evangelical — in some denominations, as much as a 20% increase over Generation Xers. But at the same time, non-Christian Millennials have extremely negative views of their evangelical peers — according to the same Pew report, only 13% positive. As the extremes increase in number, the nougat-filled center of occasional-churchgoers is in noticeable decay.

In other words: you think we’re polarized about faith in politics now?  Wait twenty years.