Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Quietly Courting: McCain and Evangelicals

I have been posting a series on religion and politics in this campaign season. And, considering that evangelicals were about one quarter of the voting block in 2004, their relationship with the different candidates has been and will probably continue to be a consistent topic in the news. As such, NYTimes has an article on McCain courting evangelicals.

So, evidently McCain has a balancing act to perform. He cannot just come out and make faith-based statements as G.W. Bush did in 2000 and especially 2004. 1) Most Evangelicals don't believe him when he makes any faith-like statement. McCain was raised an Episcopalian. He started going to a Baptist Church (American Baptist or Southern Baptist, I don't know, although it makes a HUGE difference) when he married his most recent wife, although, according to the article, he has never been baptized into the new congregation. Finally, when he campaigned for President in 2000, he called the Bush-supporting Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell and Co. "agents of intolerance." In February, when McCain was about to clinch the nomination as the presumptive Republican candidate, James Dobson of the Evangelical radio show, "Focus on the Family," said that he would stay home and just not vote (evidently he has now retracted and said that he would vote, but remain highly critical of McCain). 2) In addition to the conservative base finding McCain's faith lacking (and, by the way, they do NOT find Bush's faith lacking, although they are now flagging in their previously more enthusiastic support of Bush), McCain has to maintain the middle--yes, even in such seemingly polarized environments as the past couple elections, there is a middle portion to the electorate that will go back and forth between Republican and Democrat. The middle, though, are the most disenchanted with the Republican party and the Bush regime. These middlers, who often vote Republican, but are not particularly devoted to the party, often find the more hard-core conservative and Evangelical Republicans and their positions repulsive. Thus, if McCain reaches out too much and too publicly to Evangelical voters, he may lose the middle...and, according to the article, if he loses the middle, he loses the election. Thus, McCain has been sending substitutes and staffers to send emails and visit Evangelical leaders, he has been appearing at events without much media hype--basically, he is reaching out, but under the radar. To them, he is emphasizing his opposition to the newest same-sex marriage rulings (for the actual performance of the marriage in California, and the recognition of such California marriages in other states, like my own New York), his opposition to abortion, but, at the same time, playing down his support for stem cell research (a position of his that actually may help him maintain the centrists).

At the same time, Barack Obama is more openly courting Evangelical voters. He has openly spoken of his faith in public throughout the campaign. The now famous remarks of his pastor, however, have made this a bit more difficult for him, but with that controversy probably largely in the past, one can probably expect a bit more faith-speak from Obama--especially since he does it more convincingly than McCain does. Evidently, too, Obama has hired a full-time staffer whose sole job is to reach out to Evangelical voters. As is true overall for Obama, though, if he is able to appeal to Evangelical voters, he will probably generate more support among younger voters than the older ones.

The big question is: will disenchantment with the Republican party (because of the policies of Bush--ranging from domestic issues like education to foreign policy like lack of diplomatic skill and waging an extraordinarily unpopular and costly war), the evangelical dislike and distrust of McCain personally, and Obama's charismatic appeal lead to a reconfiguration of the electorate? Or, will these factors chip into the Republican base just barely enough for Obama to emerge victorious in November? Or will McCain be able to balance the evangelical base (which at the very best will just vote for him reluctantly) and the centrists?

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