McCain resisting Obama's efforts to break evangelical monopoly

US evangelical Pastor John Hagee gave the phrase "never again" new life when he uttered it before the 4,500 Christian Zionists.

Mccain 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Mccain 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
US evangelical Pastor John Hagee gave the phrase "never again" new life when he uttered it before the 4,500 Christian Zionists he gathered here for the annual "Night to Honor Israel" on Tuesday. The audience, which had been brought to its feet by the rousing hora-cum-hoedown of a fiddle-accompanied "Shalom Aleichem," turned serious once Hagee lumbered to the podium and began to expound on the potential threats that the assembled Christians United for Israel must stave off. Annihilation on the scale of Hitler? "Never again!" he thundered, echoing the traditional use of the phrase. The specter of a wide-scale boycott of Jewish and Israeli businesses? "Never again!" The danger of menacing neighbors bent on Israel's destruction? "Never again!" And, he concluded, "The next time I'm asked to endorse a presidential candidate, I say, 'Never Again!'" Hagee apparently learned his lesson from his time spent at the center of a media firestorm and political fiasco earlier this year, when his endorsement of John McCain was eagerly accepted and then quickly rejected once controversial comments the pastor had made about the Holocaust and the Catholic Church surfaced. The endorsement was supposed to help the presumptive Republican presidential nominee's efforts to win over Evangelicals. But when the dust settled, McCain had risked evangelical support and angered those offended by Hagee's statements claiming that God had allowed the Holocaust to enable the creation of the State of Israel, and calling the Catholic Church "the great whore" (for which he later apologized). The episode underscores the challenges McCain faces in wooing Evangelicals, a crucial part of the Republican base but one in which McCain hasn't been quite at home. While McCain might no longer embrace Hagee in his quest for evangelical votes, he is now trying to achieve the same goal by using one of Hagee's pet issues: Israel. "What Evangelicals want is for Israel to remain strong - a solid and strong state," explained Marlys Popma, the McCain campaign's director of evangelical outreach. "John McCain has had a long record, a strong record on the defense of Israel, and that's one of the pieces of the puzzle that makes him a very good fit for evangelical voters." She noted that some of the priorities of Evangelicals are shifting as a new generation emerges, meaning that while the old guard might continue to emphasize issues such as abortion, younger Evangelicals are often more concerned with climate change. Israel, as perhaps no other issue does, bridges the divide. "It's just so much a part of being an Evangelical, and being a Christian - a strong State of Israel - and it's clearly a key issue that we can talk to both groups about," Popma said. Michael Cromartie, the director of the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, agreed that Israel was a dominant issue for most Evangelicals. "It's not just a political calculation. It's a religious one," Cromartie said. "If they think a candidate is committed to Israel's security, they'll be committed to that candidate" - and vice versa for a candidate who wavers on the issue. His perspective was confirmed by many of the Evangelicals who came from around the country to participate in Christians United for Israel's annual lobbying effort. "My vote will be determined by whoever's the most pro-Israel candidate," said 20-year-old James Kimmey of California. And who would that be? "John McCain, obviously," since he has "a steadfast and consistent record." That's good news for McCain, especially with Kimmey's additional comment that the candidate's repudiation of Hagee hadn't made a difference in his estimation. "I'm not here for Pastor Hagee. I'm here because I support Israel." But not everyone is convinced that McCain is the strongest candidate for Israel. Denise Owen of Texas, who said she would be combing the candidates' Israel voting records heading toward the election, was less than thrilled about Hagee's treatment, though she didn't cite it as a determinant in her deliberations. "Support for Israel will be the No. 1 factor in who I vote for," she said. "I'm a Christian, and the Bible does say that those who bless Israel will be blessed, and I want the United States to be blessed." Cromartie wasn't surprised that the incident with Hagee hadn't gained much traction, since ultimately the issues are more important than candidates' endorsers. "McCain also holds Hagee's views about Israel... that its borders and boundaries must be protected," he pointed out. "A skirmish with Hagee won't cause Evangelicals to flee." Corwin Smidt, director of Calvin College's Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics in Grand Rapids, Michigan, agreed with Cromartie's view, and said the major challenge for McCain had to do with the intensity of evangelical support - or lack thereof - rather than outright opposition. Anecdotally, Smidt said, many Evangelicals seemed tepid in their backing of McCain and that could mean some voters lack the motivation to get to the polls come election day, while others are more vulnerable to poaching by the Democrats. And, Smidt stressed, with elections being determined "at the margins," and with Evangelicals composing up to a quarter of the electorate by some counts, shaving off even a few percentage points from those that George W. Bush garnered could cost McCain the presidency. According to Smidt, the polls currently put McCain at least six to seven points below the 78% of white evangelical support that Bush is estimated to have commanded last time around. "It's a big problem, but not just for McCain. It would be a problem for any Republican candidate," he said. "It's highly unlikely that any nominee will achieve the same levels as [Bush in] 2004." Smidt described McCain as having specific weaknesses with Evangelicals, including discomfort with speaking in religious terms and his history of statements criticizing the religious Right - he famously denounced the Reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "agents of intolerance" during his 2000 presidential run. But Smidt added that Bush's sweep of the evangelical vote in 2004 had happened largely because of his personal story of salvation through religion as well as his being an incumbent in the midst of a war supported by most of that constituency. With a new dynamic, Cromartie noted, "It poses a real opening for Obama. The question is how wide that opening will be." The campaign of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama, has certainly been trying to exploit it. Observers have pointed to a greater use of religious language than in Democratic campaigns past and of initiatives, such as the faith-based plan he recently unveiled, that would appeal to that voting bloc. And, of course, Obama included a trip to Israel in his overseas tour this week, visiting rocket-pummeled Sderot as well as holy sites in Jerusalem. Obama, though, has had trouble proving his Israel bona fides with many Jews and evangelical Christians alike, and some of his key Democratic backers acknowledged that his trip to Israel this week was partly an effort to burnish those credentials. McCain, for his part, used his rival's trip as an opportunity to attack him for his stance on Jerusalem and other Middle East issues, while pushing his own longer record on Israel. That's a message the McCain campaign will be pounding away at as the race kicks into high gear. The campaign assesses that Evangelicals following the race might be aware of where McCain stands on Israel, but not the depth and intensity of his convictions. Accordingly, the candidate's connection to Israel will be incorporated into each piece of literature targeting Evangelicals and any conversation with the community's leadership. "Every time we talk and correspond with these people, it will be a key issue," according to Popma. And even if Hagee won't be appearing on the stump for the Republican candidate, there are other surrogates who share the pastor's passion for Israel. Chief among them is Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Orthodox Jew and one-time Democratic vice presidential nominee who broke with his party and now supports McCain. Lieberman was a featured speaker at Tuesday night's event, defending Hagee and stressing the importance of his devotion to Israel. Lieberman's appearance was arranged independently of the McCain campaign, but the campaign wasn't sorry that Lieberman would be speaking at a forum designed to reach Evangelicals committed to Israel. Indeed, while Hagee might be gone, his constituents aren't forgotten. And the McCain campaign is confident that whatever the dispute with Hagee, concern for Israel will prove more important. "They're going to look at who is the best person to carry their views into the White House," Popma said, "that Israel has to remain strong." And that's something the McCain camp hopes will have Evangelicals saying "Amen."