Monday, February 18, 2008

Why the Religious Right is Stuck with John McCain

Daniel Gilgoff has a very interesting column in USA Today on why the religious right must either support moderate John McCain for president or endure at least four years of Democrats who are worse on their issues than McCain.

I listen to a considerable amount of talk radio--not as much as I once did, but still a fair amount--and I try to mix it up to get a variety of opinions into my head. Call it putting my ear to the ground in multiple places. So, this means I not only listen to Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Hugh Hewitt, but also more liberal programs from NPR like Diane Rehm and Day by Day. And, more to the point, I also listen to a little program called Point of View, a conservative talk show which broadcasts on hundreds of stations throughout the U.S. and on shortwave radio.

Point of View discusses current events, including politics, from an evangelical perspective. The variety of topics is remarkably wide-ranging, much more so that many other conservative talk radio programs. Some of the topics sound nutty to less evangelical conservatives (before the seventh Harry Potter book was out, POV spent a week bashing the series as "encouraging occultism," and every Halloween there are a host of books, CDs, and pamphlets against the holiday), but politics is where POV shines a light into the minds of evangelical voters.

That's why, even before reading Gilgoff's article, I wasn't the least bit surprised to hear how conservative Christians backed the more liberal Mike Huckabee over establishment guy Mitt Romney. It wasn't that these Christians like Huckabee's stances on immigration or foreign policy, but that they trusted Huckabee on the social issues most important to them over Romney or candidate-elect John McCain.

Gilgoff discusses the Herculean efforts of Nancy French, the Evangelicals for Mitt blog, to persuade evangelical Christians that it was acceptable (nay, preferable) to vote for a Mormon. French knew the job was an uphill battle, but it wasn't until the southern primaries that she knew the battle was lost.

Given how much hate mail French had received about Evangelicals for Mitt, she wasn't exactly shocked by Huckabee's wins. Instead, Romney's dramatic loss among evangelicals, whom he had been courting for more than a year, confirmed her fears about being able to change relatively few minds herself. For millions of evangelicals to be convinced that it was OK to support a Mormon, French concluded, high-profile Christian right leaders would have had to engage in a serious conversation about how faith should and shouldn't affect voting decisions.

"I would have loved for some Christian leaders to have said, 'We have a Mormon running for president and we have a Baptist preacher ... but who really reflects your values?' " she says. "Should you vote only for a Christian?" French is right. Such a conversation would have made it harder for Huckabee to ride evangelical support to so many early victories. And it might have helped Romney garner enough evangelical support to still be challenging McCain today.

But the conversation never happened. Which helps explains why evangelicals are stuck with Huckabee, who has less than a third of McCain's delegates and needs more delegates than are currently available to win the nomination. Socially conservative evangelicals are now all but certain to have to endure McCain — who backs federally funded embryonic stem cell research, opposes a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and famously denounced the Christian right as "agents of intolerance" — as the GOP nominee.

I've said before that John McCain wasn't my perfect candidate, but that he was close enough on the issues most important to me (the war in Iraq and judges). And I also can agree with McCain's federalist philosophy regarding things such as gay marriage (it's a state issue, one I've defended constantly for months).

Unfortunately, for many, Romney's ever-evolving conservatism wasn't the issue; his Mormonism was. I was always convinced that if Romney supporters didn't keep bringing up Mormonism, then it wouldn't have been an issue, but I'm willing to admit that I was wrong on that one. For many on the religious right, it was Romney's religion that bothered them most. I find that disturbing on multiple levels, but the worst part of the evangelicals is that this election is sure not to be about any of the social issues they care most about. And that was the choice they made by letting Romney's religion get in the way of their politics.