The religious right warms up to McCain

Evangelical leaders swallow hard and embrace the Republican they vowed to oppose.

Published July 3, 2008 5:03PM (EDT)

It's hard to overstate the extent to which the religious-right movement and its leaders have not gotten along with John McCain. It's not just that they preferred other candidates during the Republican primaries; it's that they actively and publicly hated the guy.

Consider an example. In October, the Family Research Council hosted a "Values Voter Summit," and nearly all Republican candidates showed up to kiss the movement's ring, touting their faith and their commitment to religious-right issues. At the end of the conference, organizers held a straw poll -- and McCain came in dead last with just 1.4 percent support. McCain did even worse than Rudy Giuliani, who supports abortion rights and gay rights.

Not enough? How about this -- James Dobson issued a statement in February, insisting he would not vote for McCain in the general election and would stay home if McCain was the GOP nominee. For that matter, Pat Robertson has said he would not vote for McCain "under any circumstances." Dobson and Robertson, of course, are the movement's two biggest, most well-known leaders.

The whole "agents of intolerance" thing was apparently tough to get over. It's hard for a candidate to "Sister Souljah" conservative evangelical activists, and then seek their support two cycles later. The religious right may be crazy, but it's a movement with a long memory.

That, however, was before Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination, and started earning enough support to possibly split the evangelical vote. All of a sudden, McCain doesn't look so bad anymore.

Conservative evangelical leaders met privately this week to discuss putting aside their misgivings about John McCain and coalescing around the Republican's presidential bid while urging him to consider social conservative favorite Mike Huckabee as a running mate.

About 90 of the movement's leading activists gathered Tuesday night in Denver for a meeting convened by Mathew Staver, who heads the Florida-based legal advocacy group Liberty Counsel.

Many evangelical leaders backed other GOP candidates early on and remain wary of McCain's commitment to their causes and his previous criticisms of movement leaders. But with the presidential field now set, many evangelical leaders are taking a more pragmatic view, realizing also that the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, is making a strong play for evangelical voters and talking freely about his faith.

Christian conservative leaders? Choosing pragmatism over principles? You don't say.

What's striking, though, is that the religious right looks like a cheap date. McCain has barely done any real outreach to the movement at all -- indeed, McCain had two people devoted to courting evangelical Christians and he fired both -- and while he has made all kinds of far-right assurances to the GOP's business and neocon factions, the religious right hasn't won much in the way of concessions. He even threw John Hagee and Rod Parsley under the bus -- after months of cultivating their support -- once they became inconvenient.

Apparently, that no longer matters. For most religious-right leaders, the prospect of Obama winning 40 percent of the evangelical vote, as Mark DeMoss recently predicted, is enough to send shivers down their spine. If that means cozying up to McCain, so be it.

I'd add, though, that this doesn't exactly point to a thriving, vibrant political movement. The religious right couldn't stop McCain from easily winning the Republican nomination, can't stop Obama from making inroads with evangelical voters, and couldn't even win any major concessions from McCain before rolling over and embracing him.

The religious right's obituary has been written before, but I can't remember the last time the movement seemed this irrelevant.

By Steve Benen

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