Will evangelicals abandon McCain?

The presumptive Republican nominee continues to reach out to Christian conservatives, but so far, they're not enthused.

By Justin Jouvenal
Published June 26, 2008 10:55PM (EDT)

For someone who once called Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell "agents of intolerance," John McCain found himself in strange company at a campaign stop in Ohio Thursday. The presumptive Republican nominee held a powwow with a man who once said those that distribute pornography should be jailed, a doctor who assembled the infamous aborted fetus photographs often shown at antiabortion rallies and a woman who was a major player behind the drive to ban gay marriage in Ohio.

The event was an effort to woo Christian conservative voters, something McCain badly needs to do. Remember, President Bush received 78 percent of the votes of white evangelicals and born-again Christians in 2004, and evangelicals proved to be a formidable organizing force in important swing states that had gay marriage amendments on the ballot. But according to a handful of recent reports, evangelicals -- that all-important GOP voting block -- have yet to see the light on McCain.

An Associated Press story published Thursday says there is "scant sign that the Republican nominee-in-waiting is making inroads among these fervent believers."

"I don't know that McCain's campaign realizes they cannot win without evangelicals," David Domke, a professor of communication at the University of Washington who studies religion and politics, told the AP. "What you see with McCain is just a real struggle to find his footing with evangelicals."

Struggle may be putting it mildly, even though Thursday was hardly the first time McCain has tried to reach out to Christian conservatives during this election cycle. McCain has shown little enthusiasm for positions many Christian conservatives hold dear, such as bans on gay marriage and stem cell research. He also angered evangelicals by seeking endorsements from conservative preachers Rod Parsley and John Hagee, then disavowing them after their controversial sermons drew criticism to his campaign. On top of that, James Dobson, the influential Christian conservative, has also said he could not vote for McCain in good conscience.

But it is also a question of style, as Fred Wilkinson notes in a piece on the New York Times' Web site. McCain has never been that open about his faith. At times, he's identified as an Episcopalian. Other times, he's said he's a Baptist, which is the denomination of the church he and his family attend as well as the denomination likely to curry more favor for him from evangelicals. Some times, he just refuses to answer and will say only that he's a Christian. Certainly, he's never made his religious beliefs a centerpiece of his campaign, as George W. Bush did. He simply gives off a secular vibe.

McCain's campaign has downplayed the fault line between the candidate and evangelicals, saying he has the support of three-quarters of white evangelicals in swing states. But there may be an opening for Barack Obama to whittle away at the so-called God gap between Democrats and Republicans.

Of course, Obama winning a majority of evangelicals is about as likely as, well, hell freezing over, but he has begun to reach out to them, and there are signs he could make a significant dent in Republicans' hold on the demographic. Unlike McCain, Obama regularly talks about his faith on the campaign trail, and his campaign has held more than 200 "American Values Forums."

Jacques Berlinerblau, a religious scholar at Georgetown, says Obama doesn't have to win Christian conservatives. He just has to do better than previous Democratic nominees have. "If he can get up [from] 21 to 30 percent, he's gold," Berlinerblau told the AP. "And that's exactly what he's doing. He's going to fissure off this progressive evangelical voter."

Justin Jouvenal

Justin Jouvenal is an editorial fellow at Salon and a graduate student in journalism at New York University.

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2008 Elections John Mccain R-ariz.