With clients like Focus on the Family, Franklin Graham, and Campus Crusade for Christ, Mark DeMoss may be the most prominent public relations executive in the evangelical world. A former chief of staff to Jerry Falwell, DeMoss became then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s chief liaison to evangelical leaders. God-o-Meter caught up with him this week to ask how John McCain—and Barack Obama—are doing among evangelical opinion shapers and voters.
I’ve gotten one phone call from a campaign staffer, [director of messaging] Brett O’Donnell. Brett called a month ago and asked if I was opened to getting involved. I told him that I was involved with Mitt Romney not just because I liked the campaign, but because I felt like he was a special candidate at a special time. I told him that I’m a conservative a first and a Republican second. I was inclined to vote for Senator McCain but not to get involved beyond that.
So you’re supporting McCain but aren’t exactly enthusiastic about him?
It would be accurate to say I am not as enthusiastic about Senator McCain as I was about Mitt Romney, but I think anybody would say that about their first candidate of choice.
How is John McCain doing among evangelicals, a crucial Republican constituency?
The evangelical world or the conservative religious world is not his natural habitat, so he doesn’t strike me as being all that comfortable with it. I think that’s evidenced by the strong comments made in 2000 about Falwell and Robertson.
But he gave the 2006 commencement address at Liberty University, your alma mater.
For all of the attention devoted to his 2006 commencement address at Liberty, which I attended and where I met the Senator, I would not suggest that that was reflective of building stronger ties or relationships or making inroads in the evangelical community. For one thing, his commencement address made no mention of faith or a lot of the issues that religious conservatives care an awful lot about.
Now, he was in difficult spot with that address, because had he given a speech about values and his faith, he would have been accused of values and pandering. Instead, he gives a speech largely about foreign policy and he was criticized for being out of touch with his audience. So he was probably in a no-win situation in that commencement address.
Do you think that McCain hurt himself among evangelicals by publicly rejecting pastors John Hagee and Rod Parsley, or has that been overstated?
The Senator hurt himself by rejecting the endorsements of John Hagee and Rod Parsley in Texas and Ohio, and it was mistake to do that. Here were two conservative religious pastors who were probably out on a limb supporting him. And he responds to criticism over comments they made and rejects them. That was a slap in the face to evangelicals who are already somewhat suspect of Senator McCain. I would have some theological differences with both pastor Hagee and Parsley, but in terms of values, we would be political soul mates. This makes it harder for McCain to make the case to evangelicals and other religious conservatives that we understand you.
You represent some of the nation’s most powerful evangelicals. What do those leaders say about McCain?
This is one guy’s perspective, but I am surprised by how little I’ve seen or read in conservative circles about McCain since February. I don’t think I’ve gotten one email or letter or phone call from anybody in America in the last four months saying anything about this election or urging that we unite behind John McCain and put aside whatever differences we have. Back in the fall and winter, you’d get several things a day from conservatives saying, “The future of the Supreme Court is at stake. We have to stop Hillary Clinton. Get behind so and so—or don’t’ go with this guy.” It’s just very quiet. It could meant there’s a real sense of apathy or it could mean they’re’ waiting for the general election to begin. But it’s a surprise, given the way email networks work now.
Barack Obama is trying hard to win evangelical voters. Does that effort stand a chance?
If one third of white evangelicals voted for Bill Clinton the second time, at the height of Monica Lewinsky mess—that’s a statistic I didn’t believe at first but I double and triple checked it—I would not be surprised if that many or more voted for Barack Obama in this election. You’re seeing some movement among evangelicals as the term [evangelical] has become more pejorative. There’s a reaction among some evangelicals to swing out to the left in an effort to prove that evangelicals are really not that right wing. There’s some concern that maybe Republicans haven’t done that well. And there’s this fascination with Barack Obama. So I will not be surprised if he gets one third of the evangelical vote. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was 40-percent.
How much of that is because of the testimonial way he discusses his own faith?
Out of curiosity, I’ve been reading up on Obama’s personal faith these last couple weeks. I read all of Dreams From My Father and I got Audacity of Hope and so far I only read the chapter on faith. The chapter on faith in Audacity of Hope actually talked relatively little about his personal faith or his relationship with Christ. I underlined even the remotest references and there might be six or eight sentences at most. For example, he talks about joining Trinity and being baptized there. But for evangelicals, there’s a difference between being baptized—it’s not eh same as acknowledging a decision to accept Christ. He says in other places that he accepted Christ as his savior and I accept that, but if you read [Obama’s books] You’re not going to find the kind of personal testimony in the kind of terms that Mike Huckabee talked about.
I’m not saying he has to be a born again or he shouldn’t be president. But he’s going to appeal to a lot of [evangelicals] and raise questions in others. I learned recently of a young woman form a prominent evangelical family who’d been supporting a Republican candidate in the primaries and she stood for four hours in a stadium in a downpour waiting for Obama to speak and signed up to work for him afterward. That’s all it took. It speaks to what we’re hearing about him being a mesmerizing communicator. There will be others who ask tough questions [about Obama] and say “I’m not so sure.” But one of the things that the media had gotten really wrong in recent years that evangelicals are absolutely Republican. Polls don’t show that to be true.