A Sheep In Sheep's Clothing?
Eight years ago, John McCain locked horns with the Christian Right. Now he's one of them?
By John Fea
In 2000, in the midst of John McCain’s unsuccessful run against George W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination, the Arizona senator waged an extended shouting match with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, two of the Christian Right’s most outspoken leaders. McCain made it clear that he was not going to engage in the divisive and “intolerant” politics of the Christian Right. “My friends,” he announced on CNN in February 2000, “I am a Reagan Republican who will defeat Al Gore. Unfortunately, Governor Bush is a Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore.”
By refusing to, as he put it, “pander” to the “self-appointed leaders” of the Christian Right, McCain alienated many members of the evangelical electorate. He also lost the Republican nomination. Since then McCain has learned some valuable political lessons. His efforts to mend some of the wounds he inflicted on the leaders of the Christian Right bore exceptional fruit: in May 2006, he even delivered the commencement address at Falwell’s Liberty University.
But McCain’s attempts at rapprochement have not always been smooth. Last year, in an interview with Beliefnet.com, he awkwardly tried to explain why America was a Christian nation and why a belief in Christianity was a necessary prerequisite for the presidency. It is painful to watch. The interview, which can be seen on YouTube, shows a candidate who is clearly uncomfortable talking about the relationship between religion and public life.
And then there was his acceptance (and later rejection) of an endorsement from John Hagee, the San Antonio mega-church pastor known for his anti-Catholicism and his belief that God raised up Adolph Hitler to help Jews reach the promised land of Israel. The Hagee affair revealed that Team McCain was having difficulty making sense of the evangelical landscape.
Yet last Saturday night, at Rick Warren’s "Civil Forum on the Presidency," we did not see the John McCain who has been reluctant to speak about his personal faith. Instead, we saw a George W. Bush-style evangelical—confident, strong, and determined to let nothing stand in the way of political expediency.
In fact, when it comes to moral issues, McCain and Bush now have few major differences. Both men are adamantly pro-life, both describe their faith in terms of being “saved,” both are more comfortable talking about their Christianity with personal anecdotes rather than theological reflection, both defend traditional marriage, both support “faith based-initiatives,” and both believe that the role of American foreign policy is to combat “evil.”
McCain also made reference to his long-standing attendance at the North Phoenix Baptist Church. The church website offers readers help with how to “begin a relationship with Jesus and receive new life.” Does it get more evangelical than this?
But perhaps more revealing is the way McCain seized the day on Saturday night and turned a conversation about religion and politics into an exaltation of Christian nationalism. He even referred to the United States as a “city on a hill,” a phrase first uttered by New England Puritan John Winthrop in 1630 and popularized in the 1980s by Ronald Reagan.
Implicit in McCain’s remarks is the belief that God is on the side of the United States and always champions American freedom and liberty. Oh, and by the way, God also favors lower taxes.
Like George W. Bush before him, the 2008 Republican nominee advocates the kind of Christianity that wins elections here. It celebrates freedom, but ignores its limits. It supports America’s greatness, but offers little by way of critique when this great nation goes astray.
McCain made an appeal to his base that would make Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell proud. Granted, he still supports stem cell-research and he cares for the environment just enough to make the Christian Right uneasy. But he spouts enough populist Christian rhetoric to satisfy the most adamant evangelical.
In other words, the religious “maverick” of 2000—the candidate who looked the Christian Right in the eye and refused to back down—is long gone. Anything for a vote? You bet.
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John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. He is the author of The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008). His last piece for SoMA was Praise the Lord and Pass the Caffeine.
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