Skip to main content

Features

No heaven on earth

With Romney down and McCain up, conservative evangelical leaders scramble for leverage.

No heaven on earth

(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Rob Reilly/WORLD

Conservative pundit Ann Coulter thinks Sen. Hillary Clinton is "a creepy person," but she contends that Sen. John McCain is worse: "I would vote for the devil over John McCain."

Republican radio host Rush Limbaugh says that McCain will destroy the Republican Party by seeking the presidential nomination, and he offers this reason: The senator aims to exact revenge for a nasty primary battle he lost in South Carolina eight years ago.

On the campaign trail, McCain says he doesn't sweat the vitriol: "I don't even listen to Rush. . . . I'm not a masochist."

McCain could afford that cheekiness after snatching up several hundred delegates in primaries across the country and watching his most serious opponent, Mitt Romney, drop out of the race this month. But he can't afford it for long: The Republican front-runner may not listen to Limbaugh, but if he wants to win the White House, he can't tune out conservative angst over his surprising surge.

That angst was audible at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C., in early February. The conservative crowd shouted "No" when Romney told the group he was suspending his bid for the presidency and paving the way for McCain to clinch the nomination. A few hours later, some in the crowd jeered when McCain stood behind the same podium.

In a straw poll of some 1,500 participants at the conservative convention, Romney narrowly won the most votes despite withdrawing from the race. One out of three convention-goers said if McCain wins the Republican nomination they'll vote for someone else in the general election or won't vote at all.

Opposition came from some evangelical corners as well. Focus on the Family chairman James Dobson released a statement saying he believes McCain is not a conservative, and that if he wins the Republican nomination, "I simply will not cast a ballot for president for the first time in my life." A week later, Dobson endorsed former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who continued to win primaries but significantly trailed McCain in the delegate count.

Huckabee's unexpected success in several primary contests underscored McCain's problems with conservatives: Huckabee grabbed victories in a wide band of Southern states viewed as conservative strongholds, preventing McCain from sewing up the nomination as quickly as he had hoped, and highlighting the senator's weakness among a major GOP constituency.

Long viewed as a political maverick for championing causes opposed by conservatives and evangelicals, McCain must now find a way to reach out to both groups. Meanwhile, those groups must decide whether to reach back. For McCain, one political reality is clear: The battle for the White House hinges on winning over the base of his own party without alienating independent voters who like his maverick streak.

Conservative antipathy is nothing new for McCain. Though the senator has maintained a consistent pro-life voting record, opposition to wasteful government spending, and steadfast support for an unpopular war, he's also maintained positions anathema to many conservatives. Issues like campaign finance reform, initial opposition to President Bush's tax cuts, and support for bipartisan immigration reform have rankled many in the GOP base.

Rick Santorum is one of those rankled Republicans. The former Pennsylvania senator and conservative Catholic endorsed Romney a week before the candidate withdrew from the race. Before that endorsement, Santorum told conservative radio host Mark Levin that he often disagreed with McCain during his two terms in the Senate: "John McCain was not only against us, but leading the charge on the other side."

Less than a week after Romney withdrew from the race, Santorum told WORLD he's still rankled by McCain, but won't avoid the ballot box in November if he's the GOP pick: "When you look at the [Democratic] alternatives, it makes the choice of whoever the Republican nominee is that much easier to vote for."

Ultimately, pointing out the alternative may be the key to McCain's hopes of wooing conservatives. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says McCain could take several steps to reach out to evangelicals, but adds: "In the end, there's not anything that John McCain can do to unite conservatives that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama can't do better."

The prospect of a Democratic presidency looms large in Gary Bauer's support of McCain. The Christian conservative and former presidential candidate formally endorsed McCain in early February and told WORLD he's baffled by evangelicals who say they won't vote for the senator if he's the Republican nominee.

Bauer points out that the next president may nominate as many as three Supreme Court justices. "If those justices are appointed by Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, we will have abortion for another 35 years and we will have same-sex marriage," he says. "We will have lost the two main things on the social agenda, probably forever."

Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center says the social agenda isn't the only point of leverage McCain has with evangelicals and conservatives. He points out that both groups are also concerned about national security, an area in which McCain has been a hawk.

Cromartie, who also co-chairs the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, says that unlike Democrats, McCain "isn't in denial about the nature of the threat or the state of things in the Middle East." That's a difference that evangelicals and conservatives "ignore at their own peril," he says.

If conservatives are tempted to forget those differences, McCain is determined to remind them. When the senator faced the cool crowd at CPAC this month, he revealed what may be a core strategy for reaching out to conservatives: Discuss common ground and display willingness to compromise.

On common ground, McCain touted his national security credentials, his opposition to pork-barrel spending, and his promise to appoint judges in the mold of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

On compromise, McCain told the crowd that he would extend the Bush tax cuts he voted against and he would shift his immigration policy to emphasize border security first. In a radio ad airing in California ahead of Super Tuesday, McCain told voters: "I've listened and learned. No one will be rewarded for illegal behavior."

But even if McCain has listened and learned, many conservatives think he still needs to explain his positions. Santorum says one of the most helpful things McCain could do to reach out to conservatives and evangelicals is to better articulate a conservative philosophy.

"He needs to step back and say, 'Here's my worldview,'" says Santorum. When his policy positions don't match those of traditional conservatives, he needs to "explain why this is an exception in the context of an ideology."

There are plenty of those controversial exceptions that McCain could better explain. One example: his participation in the so-called Gang of 14 that negotiated a Senate compromise on confirming judges in 2005.

McCain was one of seven Republican senators who joined seven Democrats to broker a deal aimed at facilitating Senate votes on judges. The deal prevented Democrats from invoking a filibuster to block votes, and it prevented Republicans from invoking the so-called "nuclear option" to shut down a filibuster. Critics in both parties lambasted the senators and accused them of disloyalty.

But this is one place McCain isn't backing down. In an interview with WORLD late last year, the senator said: "I am proud-I repeat, proud-of my work as part of the Gang of 14 in getting justices Roberts, Alito, and other judges to lifetime appointments who will interpret the Constitution strictly."

McCain said he believed many judges wouldn't have been confirmed without the deal. He added: "Anybody who disagrees with what we did in getting these justices confirmed-then I am not their candidate."

Now that McCain is the front-runner, some conservatives will be waiting to see whether McCain will temper his tone and flesh out his controversial positions. Independent voters who like McCain's moderate stances and have shown support for him in early primaries will be waiting to see how far right McCain is willing to go. McCain's campaign will be warily juggling both ends of the spectrum.

Conservatives are also eagerly waiting to learn another piece of McCain's strategy that may prove key to his ability to unite conservatives if he wins the nomination: his choice for a running mate. James Guth, a political scientist at Furman University, told WORLD that McCain was already picking up some evangelical support, but added: "I think a lot of it depends on how he manages the vice presidential nomination."

For McCain, picking a running mate means more juggling: A choice like Huckabee could please many evangelicals who have already supported the former governor, but it could also alienate some economic conservatives who view Huckabee as too moderate.

Guth says the ideal running mate would be both socially and economically conservative: "But I've been wracking my mind trying to figure out who that might be."

In the meantime, McCain is relying on high-profile conservatives to help make his case with the party's base. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., one of the most conservative members of the Senate, has endorsed McCain. Coburn told WORLD he thinks McCain would bring needed fiscal restraint to the White House and fight the war on terror.

As for Republicans who say they may shun McCain in a general election, Coburn says: "If they're more worried about the Republican Party than they are about this country, then I don't want to be part of the Republican Party with them."

Cromartie says McCain should reach out specifically to evangelicals as well, especially considering his strained past with the group. "He needs to hire a liaison to evangelicals and religious conservatives now-if not yesterday," he says. "The conversation needs to begin quickly."

McCain spokesman Brett O'Donnell told WORLD that the senator does not have a religious adviser on the campaign, but said the campaign has had "an active outreach to social conservatives and evangelicals" by seeking to communicate the senator's "socially conservative record." (Both Clinton and Obama have religious advisers on their campaigns. Obama has created an extensive and sophisticated outreach to religious voters, including evangelicals.)

Despite a dicey history with evangelicals, McCain had reason to be optimistic in recent weeks. Land and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, both indicated they could support McCain. (Perkins, who has criticized the senator in the past, told The New York Times: "I have no residual issues with John McCain.")

Two days before endorsing McCain, Bauer told WORLD: "I think he needs to reach out to us [evangelicals], and I think that we need to reach out to him."

For some evangelicals, the pitch won't be too difficult. Mark DeMoss, a public-relations specialist representing prominent evangelical organizations, endorsed Romney early in his campaign and sent a five-page letter to 150 Christian leaders asking them to "galvanize support" around Romney. DeMoss told WORLD he's disappointed Romney dropped out, but "I'm not throwing in the towel."

"It's not a perfect world, we don't get perfect candidates, and when things don't go the way we want them to go, I think there's wisdom in still trying to have influence," says DeMoss. "Politics isn't heaven on earth."

Green Baptists

ATLANTA- One of the stranger moments in last month's New Baptist Covenant gathering in downtown Atlanta involved an odd combination: Al Gore and a green Bible.

At a luncheon featuring the former vice president and his famous slide show about global warming, Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, presented Gore with the custom-made, green-covered Bible.

"The Bible is God's green book," said Parham. "The green Bible calls us to love our neighbors. And, my friends, the only way we can love our neighbors across time is to leave them a decent place to live."

Discussions of global warming were one slice of a three-day event that drew more than 15,000 people from nearly 30 different Baptist groups to the Georgia World Congress Center for a conference organized by former President Jimmy Carter, a life-long Baptist.

The gathering drew mostly moderate-to-liberal Baptists from across the country, and Carter said the purpose was to cultivate unity and address social needs. (Breakout sessions included discussions of poverty, health care, and prison reform.)

But others saw the meeting as an attempt to reclaim cultural and political influence lost to conservative Southern Baptists over the last 25 years. (Carter broke with the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000.)

In his 2005 book Our Endangered Values, Carter wrote that the schism between conservative and moderate-to-liberal Baptists has had "a profound impact on every American citizen through similar and related changes being wrought in our nation's political system." Carter identified those changes as "a right-wing movement within American politics, often directly tied to like-minded Christian groups."

Carter insisted that the Atlanta meeting was not political, but the speakers included Carter, Gore, former President Bill Clinton, and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. (Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee originally agreed to address the group, but withdrew last year, saying he was offended by negative comments Carter made about President George W. Bush.)

Speakers in some breakout sessions didn't conceal disdain for conservative influence in the public square. Cynthia Holmes, an attorney and co-chair of the Baptist Joint Committee's Religious Liberty Council, told a packed afternoon session that they were free to teach their children creation science at home: "But teaching it in a [public school] science class as science is phony and it demeans our religion."

SBC leaders didn't participate in the conference, and SBC president Frank Page expressed concern last year that the meeting would represent "a smoke-screen, liberal agenda that seeks to deny the greatest need in our world, that being that the lost be shown the way to eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord."

Page told WORLD that his concern for an emphasis on spiritual needs doesn't undermine the biblical imperative to address physical needs as well. He pointed out that the SBC invests millions of dollars each year in helping the poor.

Page says the notion that evangelicals are "concerned only about eternal salvation and damnation and care nothing about people in this life" is wrong, but added: "I do believe that many conservative, evangelical believers should be more concerned" about the poor, the sick, and the stranger: "Do we need to do more? The answer is an unequivocal yes."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.