Saturday, Sep. 06, 2008
By AMY SULLIVAN
Sure, John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin to be his running mate fully consumed a GOP convention that was supposed to be focused on thumping Barack Obama over the head. And it may have raised questions about McCain’s own judgment and seriousness. But, as we have been told ad nauseam since the surprise choice was announced last Friday, Palin has already provided one unquestionable, invaluable assist to the Republican campaign: with one sweep of her perfectly manicured hand, she has supposedly erased McCain’s Evangelical problem and united the base that proved so key to George W. Bush’s victory in 2004.
To a degree, that’s true. Palin’s pro-life credentials are impeccable — she opposes abortion in all circumstances, even in cases of rape and incest, except when a delivery will result in death. And her strong, open religious faith will make her the perfect person to reach out to conservative Evangelicals, who still don’t fully trust the Republican nominee. But McCain and his aides may not want to say hallelujah just yet. While Palin is inspiring rhapsodies from the lions of the Christian right, her appeal to more moderate and younger Evangelicals — as well as independent swing voters — may be limited.
Lost in the stampede of social conservatives to embrace Palin this past week is the fact that she is culturally outside the mainstream of Evangelicalism. Over the past few years, a growing number of Evangelicals have been consciously distancing themselves from the more extreme stands of the Christian right. They live in the suburbs, hold graduate degrees, and while they might not want their children reading certain novels, would be embarrassed by attempts to ban certain books from libraries, as Palin is reported to have briefly considered while mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. They don’t attend churches where speakers charge that violence against Israelis is divine punishment for the failure of Jews to accept Jesus, as happened at one of Palin’s churches two weeks ago (though Palin has now issued a statement saying she does not agree with those views). And they would disagree with Palin’s decision to use her line-item veto as Governor to slash funding for an Alaska shelter that serves teen mothers.
That goes double for younger Evangelicals. These voters tend to be even more pro-life than their parents, but abortion isn’t always a priority that moves their votes — it wasn’t when McCain was alone on the ticket, and there’s no reason for that to change with the addition of Palin. More important, Palin has problematic stances on many of the issues that do motivate young Evangelicals. Her insistence that global warming is not man-made, for instance, is unlikely to appeal to those Evangelicals who have embraced so-called “creation care” in the past few years. This is particularly relevant to the current race, as young Evangelicals account for much of that demographic’s undecided bloc. No one knows what the size of their impact may be in November because young Evangelicals are consistently underrepresented in polls of white Evangelicals. (Even a TIME poll of likely white Evangelical voters conducted last month used a sample in which just 10% of respondents were between 18 and 35. That age group made up 22% of the total electorate in 2004, and its share of the electorate is expected to increase this year.)
At first glance, it may seem ridiculous to say that McCain has an Evangelical problem at all, considering that he already has commanded support in the high 60s or low 70s. As of last week, however, the percentage of white Evangelicals who planned to vote for McCain was still 10 points lower than the final percentage of those voters who went for Bush in the last presidential election. The most conservative Evangelicals — the ones who served as foot soldiers for the Bush-Cheney campaign, mobilizing their neighbors and fellow parishioners — were the least enthusiastic about McCain’s candidacy. And many leaders of the Christian-right establishment were ostentatiously withholding their endorsements of the Arizona Senator.
McCain’s difficulty exciting white Evangelicals has been twofold. The people in the pews had lingering questions about his commitment to the pro-life cause. McCain’s “maverick” political reputation has led many women, including some angry Hillary Clinton supporters who have thrown their support behind him, to assume that he must also buck the GOP’s staunch opposition to abortion — and many Evangelicals worry about just the same thing, despite the Senator’s lifelong record of supporting nearly all abortion restrictions. While McCain tried to address that concern by declaring at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Forum held last month that “life begins at conception,” his continued flirtation with pro-choice running-mate possibilities like Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge hurt his efforts to make inroads.
His tense relationship with Christian-right leaders has had different roots. They have spent the campaign looking for signs that McCain, who during his 2000 presidential run famously referred to some of them as “agents of intolerance,” is one of them; instead he revealed that while he attends a Baptist church in Phoenix, he has not been baptized. But what about that moving POW guard story, you might ask? The one about the guard who drew a cross in the sand to share his Christian identity with McCain? That tale, it turns out, is actually a large part of the problem for Evangelical leaders. In off-the-record conversations, they complain that the story is about someone else’s faith — which is one reason McCain has recently added a line about how he and the guard “were just two Christians, venerating the cross” — and that surely McCain must have an example of his own faith from the past 40 years.
But they’re mostly annoyed that it’s the only answer McCain gives to any question about religion or faith. It’s the story he told last spring at a gathering of conservative leaders when asked to explain his faith in God. “He blew that question off by telling us about the faith of his jailer,” direct-mail pioneer Richard Viguerie fumed to the Los Angeles Times afterward. “It was very obvious to those three or four hundred conservative leaders there.” One month later, McCain pulled out his trusty tale once again when a student at a town-hall event asked what effect his faith would have on his “executive decision-making.”
There is no doubt that Palin will help calm the doubts of that core Evangelical base and leadership. While many pundits have wondered whether social conservatives will recoil from the news that Palin’s 17-year-old daughter is five months pregnant, they’re clearly not grasping the mores of that community. If Bristol Palin were the daughter of Democratic parents, she would undoubtedly be held up as an example of the failures of a liberal, permissive culture. Instead, she is viewed — as are the majority of teenage mothers in Evangelical churches — as a Christian who sinned, is forgiven, and needs to be embraced and supported.
The revelation about her daughter’s pregnancy, and the fact that Palin herself chose to give birth to a baby with Down Syndrome, are just another part of the compelling picture Palin can paint of her faith. She was baptized in the Catholic Church and for most of her life belonged to an Assemblies of God congregation — a Pentecostal denomination. In high school, Palin was the local leader of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and most recently she moved her family to a nondenominational Evangelical church in her hometown.
That move away from the Pentecostal Church, which took place in 2002 when Palin first ran for lieutenant governor in Alaska, is the only potential sign she has given that her religious beliefs might be a political liability. Her spokeswoman now says that Palin does not identify herself as a Pentecostal. Historically Pentecostals and other Evangelical Protestants haven’t always gotten along, largely because of theological differences. Pentecostal theology elevates the role of the Holy Spirit and includes belief in spiritual gifts, such as healing and speaking in tongues. But the groups have often been able to set aside their doctrinal disagreements for political purposes. Pat Robertson, a Pentecostal, and the late Jerry Falwell, a Fundamentalist, famously had bitter theological disputes but still joined forces as leading figures of the Christian right.
Palin’s red-meat conservatism and Evangelicalism will almost certainly play well with those party faithful who attended the Republican National Convention this week. But with fewer than 60 days until Election Day (and a month before the start of early voting in many states), the McCain campaign’s continued courting of the more traditional base spells trouble for any efforts to expand his appeal to independent voters and less conservative Evangelicals. If so, McCain may find himself quoting a bowdlerized verse of Scripture in November: What does it profit a man to gain the Christian right and lose the White House?