John McCain’s rejection of John Hagee’s endorsement today is the starkest example yet of McCain’s ham handed approach to dealing with the Christian Right and with handling religious matters generally. It’s a striking contrast to era of George W. Bush, whose political rise was largely a result of having mastered Christian Right and evangelical outreach, in connecting with believers personally and mobilizing them organizationally.
McCain’s deficiencies in those areas also contrast sharply with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, whose sophisticated campaigns to win evangelical, Catholic, Jewish, and other religious voters just four years after John Kerry refused to engage in faith-based organizing and messaging suggest that both learned more from Bush about religion’s role in American politics than McCain did.
It’s telling that McCain didn’t just accept Hagee’s endorsement, but actively pursued it, as he did with Rev. Rod Parsley, the Ohio evangelist who’s come under fire for spouting vehemently anti-Muslim views. Chastened by his 2000 loss after having called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance,” McCain was eager to patch up relations with the Christian Right for his ’08 bid. So he went to Falwell’s university to deliver a commencement address and reached out to the evangelists who would take his calls, like Hagee and Parsley.
Of course, such maneuvers were relatively simple and painless. Yet McCain, unlike Bush–and Ronald Reagan before him–never took the time to study up on the difficult art of appealing to evangelicals and their political leaders. And without that kind of schooling, faith-based messaging and outreach is a minefield. Howard Dean found that out during his 2004 campaign, when his off-the-cuff remark that the Old Testament Book of Job was his favorite part of the New Testament inspired tag-wagging among the true believers who’d long suspected Dean was a secular elitist.
For McCain, the most glaring example of his unwillingness to treat religious outreach seriously is that his campaign still lacks a fulltime religious outreach director. Bush had a handful of such strategists aboard his 2000 and 2004 campaigns, including such talented figures as former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed. Both Obama and Clinton hired fulltime religious outreach directors as soon as they launched their campaigns early last year, and have filled out their faith-based teams with more personnel since then.
Those are the kind of staffers that could have averted, or at least better managed, the Hagee disaster for McCain. At the very least, they would have known about Hagee’s history of anti-Catholic statements, which blindsided the McCain team and triggered the initial firestorm over Hagee’s endorsement.
Instead, having been newly chastened by the Hagee ordeal, McCain may be loath to reach out to other Religious Right figures. Come November, that cold shoulder could have McCain in more political hot water than controversial endorsements from evangelical leaders.