Beliefnet
Beliefnet News

By Adelle M. Banks
2008 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON — The day after Super Tuesday, when so much was supposed to become so clear, evangelicals are as divided — and sought after — as they were the day before.
“There was this expectation, I think, over the course of the last year, that evangelicals — both the vanguard, the leadership of the movement, and the rank and file — would kind of congeal around a single candidate,” said Dan Gilgoff, political editor at Beliefnet.com.
“What you’re seeing is McCain, Huckabee and Romney are really splitting those votes.”
As the election season plows along, the three major Republican candidates are each facing challenges as they try to woo evangelicals.
At the same time, the continuing evangelical dispersal has some pointing to a natural opening for Democrats in their attempts to lure evangelicals away from the GOP.
Exit polls showed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee drew the largest share of white evangelical voters (38 percent), followed by Sen.
John McCain (30 percent) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (27 percent), according to the Associated Press.
Some evangelicals express larger concerns over Arizona Sen. John McCain’s conservative bona fides, while others are skeptical about the depths of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s conservative convictions or about Huckabee’s electability.
McCain is finding that some evangelicals won’t consider him at all.
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson issued a blistering statement in the midst of primary voting Tuesday (Feb. 5) that criticized him for not backing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and for supporting embryonic stem-cell research.
“I cannot, and will not, vote for Sen. John McCain, as a matter of conscience,” said Dobson, stressing that he was speaking as a private citizen.
The Rev. Joel Hunter, a Florida megachurch leader who has become known for his pro-environmental stance, said Dobson’s words will have resonance for those who are most loyal to him.
“That will have some impact, not a large impact,” he predicted.
Hunter said he detected some movement toward McCain. “There are many evangelicals who are tickled to support somebody who’s pro-life and pro-environment and considers treating immigrants humanely.”
As for Huckabee, evangelical support has only gone so far for the former Southern Baptist pastor. In most states, he has not received 50 percent of the evangelical vote, points out Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
“Evangelicals are not one-dimensional,” he said. “Many pro-family evangelicals are also strong national security hawks and … many pro-family evangelicals are also economic conservatives and so many of them have chosen to vote for other pro-life candidates.”
Romney, whose Mormon faith has given some evangelicals pause, now finds he is questioned by religious conservatives who are troubled by what Land called the “recentness” of his change to their viewpoint on social issues like abortion.
“Those of us who have been fortunate enough to hear him personally tell the story of his change, most of us, are convinced,” said Land.
“Unfortunately, he can’t have a small-group discussion with every evangelical in America.”
More evangelicals have backed Romney than predicted, said Mark DeMoss, a publicist for conservative Christians who has been actively involved in his campaign.
“A year ago, a lot of experts would have said you’re not going to attract any of them,” said DeMoss. “And I think he’s attracted probably millions of them.”
Gilgoff said some evangelicals may consider a Democratic candidate for president, since both Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have made religious outreach a top priority.
Hunter saw some potential evangelical interest in Obama — less “polarizing” than Clinton, he thought — and his promise to find bipartisan solutions to domestic challenges and caring for the poor.
“Obama’s attractive, not because of the issues, but because of his ability to inspire,” Hunter said.
But more-conservative evangelical leaders don’t expect much movement across party lines, especially since both Clinton and Obama support abortion rights.
“Not a chance,” said Connie Mackey, senior vice president of FRC Action, the legislative arm of the Family Research Council.
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus