McCain’s Indecision 2008: Reject religious intolerance or continue to pander?

It took him awhile but John McCain finally came out to denounce and reject the endorsement of controversial preacher and well known Catholic hater John Hagee. 

Hagee, whose antisemitism is cloaked in the “but I love the state of Israel” rhetoric that is typical of evangelicals, just got too hot for McCain to handle after the public heard his remarks equating the Holocaust with God’s shortcut to leading the Jews into Zion (BTW, if God wanted to return the Jews to Israel couldn’t he have done it in a slightly more direct way, say, by not allowing 2 of every 5 Jews to perish in the process?).

While pundits are comparing McCain’s “preacher problem” to that of Obama’s relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the comparison isn’t really apt: McCain has taken a principled stand against people like Hagee in the past whereas Obama chose not to reject his preacher until forced into a corner.  That leads to the question as to why McCain has continued to embrace — and seek out the endorsement of — outspoken, right wing conservative preachers that he wouldn’t be caught dead associating himself with 8 years ago. 

Here is what the more centrist John McCain said back in 2000:

“Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right,” 

Bravo!  But, Johnny why were you led astray?  The pandering (his word, not ours) seems to have started in earnest a few years ago when McCain began his most recent run for President. 

(McCain and Jerry Falwell make nice in ’06)

In May of 2006 he spoke at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.  And ever since, his campaign has been courting some of the more infamous “intolerance agents” of the extreme religious right, including Hagee and Ohio’s Rod Parsley, who has called upon Christians to wage a “war” against the “false religion” of Islam with the aim of destroying it. 

The answer to McCain’s getting religion as it were lies in the after effects of the simultaneous rise of the New Religious Right and the Reagan “revolution.”  Back in 1980 Reagan recognized an important voting block by making alliances with more activist religious leaders like Falwell (who was just starting the Moral Majority) and others on the religious fringe who could be counted on to get out the vote.  While George Bush senior was able to keep these newly powerful religious leaders at arm’s length to win the presidency back in ’88, Bush II made them a centerpiece of his successful run for president in 2000.  This gave old guard bigots like James Dobson and Falwell unprecedented power in American politics and has helped them make inroads re: many of their pet issues including laws meant to restrict abortion and gay rights, and to promote “intelligent design,” and other means of breaking down the separation of Church and State.

But John McCain was never in that camp.  He was a Republican more along the lines of his conservative mentor and fellow Arizonian Barry Goldwater, who barely tolerated the religious wing of the New Right. In fact

When Sandra Day O’Connor was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1981, some Religious Right leaders suspected she might be too moderate on abortion and other social concerns.  Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell told the news media that “every good Christian should be concerned.”  Replied Goldwater, “Every good Christian should line up and kick Jerry Falwell’s ass.”

So what’s a guy to do now?  Although we are no big fan of the man’s policies and think a McCain presidency is the wrong direction for the country, we have a suggestion that could help McCain retain some of his integrity on the issue and prove himself a true leader of his morally corrupt party: make a historic speech, similar to Obama’s, that demonstrates his true thoughts about religion and denounces intolerence of any kind.  McCain needs to go over the heads of these “agents of intolerance” and speak directly to those who embrace the Word of God;  publicly reject their message of hate and prejudice; and scorn their influence on the politics of distrust and division.  Talk instead about Jesus’ message of love for your fellow man and how we all need to appeal to the better angels in our souls.

McCain has an opportunity to turn around almost 30 years of political pandering to the “outer reaches” of America’s religious sphere and redefine his party’s approach re: the role of religion in politics.  With the ascendance of newer, more tolerent voices on the right like Rev. Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals, this message can truly resonate among the country’s 65 million conservative Christians.  He can make history by removing the shackles forced on his party by men (and they are all white men) not worthy of mainstream public attention, let alone a voice in our national government. 

The move may not win him the presidency, but it could make him a hero among the more forward-thinking members of his party for generations to come. 




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