High Stakes for McCain in Grassley's Televangelist Probe
Just days after rejecting the endorsements of his "ministers of war" John Hagee and Rod Parsley, John McCain may be about to confront another faith-based conundrum. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) is facing withering criticism from prominent conservatives and evangelical leaders over his Senate probe into the finances of Kenneth Copeland and other so-called "prosperity gospel" televangelists. Republican nominee McCain may have to choose between his party's increasingly disgruntled religious right base and a fellow Republican Senator he once called a "f**king jerk."
As the Washington Post details, the Senate Finance Committee's inquiry to determine whether Copeland and five other televangelists "are improperly using their tax-exempt status as churches to shield lavish lifestyles" is raising hackles among Christian conservatives. In January, former Arkansas Governor, Baptist minister and now McCain VP hopeful Mike Huckabee stood by Copeland, a supporter who raised - perhaps illegally - over $100,000 for his presidential campaign. Now Copeland and Georgia minister Creflo Dollar are refusing to cooperate further with Grassley's probe.
Alleging bias by the Baptist Grassley against the Pentecostal preachers, Copeland and many familiar faces among the religious right are fighting back. Copeland has launched a web site called Believers Stand United, which claims the Iowa Republican is "publicly questioning the religious beliefs of the targeted churches, their ministers, and their members while ignoring televangelists of other denominations." Copeland went on to liken Grassley, the man John McCain labeled a "f**king jerk," to the devil himself:
"Satan has an agenda. He is looking for a way to drive a wedge and get strife between one another."
Other high profile conservatives are lining up with Copeland. Moral Majority co-founder Paul Weyrich, former Ohio secretary of state Kenneth Blackwell and Anthony Verdugo of the Christian Family Coalition joined other figures in the religious right in sending a letter to the Senate Finance Committee. Their missive claims that ministries were under investigation because they shared "the same branch of evangelicalism" and that Grassley's inquiry infringes the churches' First Amendment rights. Signatory Matthew Staver, dean of the law school at the late Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, personally attacked Senator Grassley while warning that the probe:
"Sets a terrible precedent that...should be a concern to all houses of worships across the board -- Christian and non-Christian." It may be that Senator Grassley has some kind of personal opinion with regards to the doctrines of these churches."
Doug Wead, an informal adviser to President Bush who also served as a liaison to the evangelical community during his father's presidency, revealed the stakes for John McCain and the GOP:
"You've got a Baptist senator attacking six Pentecostals. The timing is not good for the Republican Party."
The timing is especially dangerous for John McCain. In the wake of McCain's rejection of the Hagee and Parsley endorsements he previously sought, evangelical leaders are increasingly questioning his new-found commitment to people he once deemed "agents of intolerance." Evangelical leader Bishop Harry Jackson complained, "Now folks don't know what he means," adding, "Is he for us or against us?" Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, said simply of McCain's faith-based flip-flop on Hagee and Parsley, "this doesn't help."
McCain's running mate search is also sure to shine a spotlight on the controversy. Back in April, Weyrich joined two dozen other conservative activists in signing a letter titled "No Mitt" calling on McCain to reject Mitt Romney as his vice presidential choice. Governor Huckabee, who like Romney has made no secret of his desire for the #2 slot on the ticket, has made it clear he's with Copeland and not Grassley's committee in the controversy ("Why should I stand with them and not with you? They've only got an 11 percent approval rating.").
As Chuck Grassley's probe of Copeland and the other prosperity gospel ministers unfolds, John McCain may well find he's damned if he does and damned if doesn't. If he backs the Senate investigation, McCain may only further raise the ire of his party's hard right as the November election nears. If he sides with Copeland, Weyrich et al, he will be seen as pandering to social conservatives at precisely the time his campaign is running hard to the center.
But in reversing his 2000 position and embracing the religious right he once criticized, the Episcopalian-turned-Baptist McCain brought his upon himself. Asked by the Daily Show's Jon Stewart in 2006 if he was "going to crazy base world," John McCain replied, "I'm afraid so."