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McCain and the GOP's Faith-Based Follies

September 18, 2007

John McCain's schizophrenia this week over his alternating Episcopalian and Baptist status is just the latest chapter in the faith-based follies of the GOP presidential hopefuls. In a delicious double Catch 22, those running as "men of faith" to win the nomination of what many of it own members call "God's Own Party" are now being called on it. Then, after performing unnatural contortions to assuage radical right primary voters, the Republican candidates must veer back to the middle to have a prayer of winning the general election.
Consider the side-splitting antics of the Republican God Squad over just the last several weeks. Mitt Romney declares the President should be a man of faith, but then refuses to discuss his own. While John McCain assures voters the important thing is that he is a good Christian, Rudy Giuliani says he'll leave to the priests to decide if he's a bad Catholic. And while instant front-runner Fred Thompson hardly ever steps inside a church, Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee took their holy war outside the pulpit.
Here's a quick run-down of the latest GOP faith-based follies:
John McCain. Having long identified himself as an Episcopalian, the Arizona Senator this week apparently decided his wife's Baptist faith was a better fit for his party's bible-thumping primary voters. McCain then sought to defuse the controversy over his faith-based flip-flop at the expense of Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and virtually all other Americans by declaring, "The most important thing is that I am a Christian." As Jon Stewart concluded after McCain embraced Jerry Falwell, a man he once labeled "an agent of intolerance," "you can't unsell out."
Fred Thompson. Thompson's first campaign baptism by fire didn't go much better. The one-time lobbyist for a pro-choice group played dumb on the Terri Schiavo controversy so near and dear to the hearts of the American Taliban. Claiming he too was in a persistent vegetative state, Thompson said, "That's going back in history. I don't remember the details of it." Digging a deeper hole with evangelical voters, Thompson described his on-again, mostly off-again church-going habits. "I attend church when I'm in Tennessee. I'm in McLean (Va.), right now. I don't attend regularly when I'm up there."
Rudy Giuliani. The twice-divorced, pro-choice and frequently cross-dressing Giuliani has his own cross to bear with the religious right. Rudy, who admitted in 1999 "I don't attend Mass regularly," proclaimed in August that "my religious affiliation, my religious practices and the degree to which I am a good or not so good Catholic, I prefer to leave to the priests." That's probably a good idea. After all, Giuliani admitted, "I pray like a lawyer," adding, "I try to make a deal - get me out of this jam, and I'll start going back to church."
Mitt Romney. Romney has latter day problems of his own. After a series of gymnastic flip-flops on abortion, stem cell research and rights for gay Americans, Romney created a conundrum over his Mormon faith. In 2006, the former Massachusetts governor told Fox News, "People in this country want a person of faith to lead them as their president." But when WHO radio host Jan Mickelson took him up on it and questioned him about his Mormon religion, an agitated Romney complained he was not "running as a Mormon" and that Mickelson was "trying to tell me I'm not a faithful Mormon." To help douse the fire he lit, Romney has promised a Kennedyesque speech on faith and politics.
Sam Brownback. Romney foe and Kansas Senator Sam Brownback isn't making his life any easier. In June, a campaign aide for the evangelical turned Catholic Brownback sent an email to Iowa GOP leaders criticizing Romney's Mormon faith. Among other attacks, the email from Emma Nemecek noted "the LDS Jesus is not the same Jesus of the Christian faith." While Romney ultimately accepted Brownback's apology, Romney told evangelical voters that "the difference between me and Sam Brownback is he has run a uniformly negative campaign."
Mike Huckabee. Meanwhile, the campaign of Mike Huckabee has apparently concluded it is better to give than receive. In one of campaign 2008's most ironic moments, a Catholic-turned-evangelical supporter of the former Arkansas Governor attacked the evangelical-turned-Catholic Brownback. The Reverend Tim Rude of Walnut Creek Community Church in Windsor Heights, Iowa emailed colleagues:

"I know Senator Brownback converted to Roman Catholicism in 2002. Frankly, as a recovering Catholic myself, that is all I need to know about his discernment when compared to the Governor's. I don't if this fact is widely known among evangelicals who are supporting Brownback."

Given the endless parade of egregious gaffes, pretentious pandering and hilarious hypocrisy, what is an evangelical voter to do? "Right now, I think people are stepping back a little and watching," said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, adding, "The field is still very fluid." Pastor Rick Scarborough, who once compared Tom Delay to Jesus Christ, concurred:

"The problem I'm having is that I don't see any blood trail. When you really take a stand on issues dear to the heart of social conservatives, you're going to shed some blood in the process."

And last night, McCain, Thompson, Romney and Giuliani didn't make matters any easier for the right's self-proclaimed "values voters." No doubt fearful of scaring the bejesus out of mainstream general election voters, the GOP's Big Four all punted on the radical right's Values Voters Debate. While the Republicans' second tier got its hate on towards gay Americans, immigrants and Muslims (among others), the front-runners apparently decided discretion was the better part of valor.
Which brings us full circle. All of the 2008 Republican presidential hopefuls find themselves in a faith-based fix. That is, desperate to win the support of the Christian conservative voters who control the GOP primary process, they each made a Faustian bargain by publicly proclaiming their deep religious faith. Now, the American people want proof.
UPDATE 1: Mitt Romney is at again. Just one day after the blogosphere noted a pro-gay rights flyer distributed by Romney's 2002 gubernatorial campaign in Massachusetts, Mitt began running anti-gay marriage radio ads in Iowa.
UDPATE 2: On Thursday, the AP published stinging email from Focus on the Family's James Dobson declaring he could not support Fred Thompson.

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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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