John McCain took half the Catholic vote in the Michigan primary, compared with George W. Bush's 38 percent, says John Zogby, whose surveys are considered the most reliable by political insiders. Does this mean that Bush's dalliance with the fundamentalist Bob Jones University and the religious right's scurrying to get out his vote has lost him this crucial voting block? Zogby says it's hard to say whether Bush's religious right support had any impact on the Michigan Catholic vote. "But it could in the future," he says. "Almost half the Republican vote in New York is Catholic, and it is substantial in Massachusetts too." If Bush had won Michigan, McCain's campaign would be finished and religious conservatives would feel triumphant. But McCain's victory prompts the question: What got into the religious right? I spent much of the campaign's final week in South Carolina, covering the McCain campaign for the New York Post, where I am an opinion columnist. As a practicing Catholic and registered Republican--a religious conservative, in other words--I was shocked by the way many Christians seemed willing to stop at nothing to destroy McCain's character. Standing against a candidate is one thing. But for a pro-life war hero with a strongly conservative voting record to have to hear that church people are saying he's a whoremonger, his wife is a dope addict, he's the "fag candidate," and worse--well, this is something else entirely. What is now clear is that the religious right has staked its future on the Bush candidacy. And it's equally clear that the more closely Bush is associated with the religious right, the worse he does among the general electorate.

Some of the attacks were amazing:

  • Bush kicked off his South Carolina campaign with a speech at Bob Jones University (BJU), a fundamentalist college that bans interracial dating and whose leaders are virulently anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon.

  • A BJU professor sent an e-mail filled with damaging rumors about John McCain's personal life to churches around the state. Among other lurid charges, the document alleged that McCain fathered children out of wedlock. When a CNN reporter asked the professor for proof, the man replied, "Well, can you prove he didn't?"

  • Paul Weyrich, a well-known Christian conservative activist, distributed an e-mail suggesting that McCain might be a Communist agent. One of his sources was the Khmer Rouge.

  • The evangelical newsmagazine World published, on election eve, a hatchet job on John McCain. The wildly slanted article painted McCain as a quasi-Marxist class warrior, a squish on abortion, and a "conniving" cad who married his second wife for her money. The piece was written by, lo, Bob Jones IV. The magazine's editor is top Bush adviser Marvin Olasky. It was later explained by World that Jones is somewhat philosophically estranged from his controversial father, and that Olasky has recused himself from editing the magazine's political coverage. Even if one grants that World has no pro-Bush agenda, the basic unfairness of the McCain article stands, and the appearance of a conflict of interest is hard to ignore.

There's no linking any of this directly to the Bush campaign. But when reporters confronted Bush with questions about these tactics, Bush did not disavow them or call on his followers to knock it off. Bush ads to the contrary, McCain and his supporters never criticized his opponent in remotely the same terms, and the senator consistently refused to put down the religious right--even when reporters asked him to comment on their Machiavellian machinations. McCain, who tried until the last minute to devise an appeal to Christian voters, appeared nonplussed by the attacks. Congressman Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, stood up for McCain against the religious right. "I'm a Christian. I'm a conservative," Graham said at a town meeting. "And what's been done to this man is wrong!" The religious right's dirty campaigning in part convinced longtime Christian conservative activist Gary Bauer to break ranks with his movement colleagues and endorse McCain. Bauer also questioned the wisdom of religious conservative leaders continuing to weld the movement to the Republican Party establishment. Bauer told me he can't figure out why religious conservatives have been so eager to depict McCain's record on issues important to them as being far worse than it really is. Not all of South Carolina's religious conservatives bought the lie, he said. "I met a lot of people there who were deeply, deeply angry, and it's going to take them a long, long time to get over that," Bauer said.
"A lot of them came up to me and were just mortified by the nature of the [Bush] campaign. It's terrible to see that in politics, and even worse when it involves people of faith." Former Christian Coalition legislative director Marshall Wittmann, now at the conservative Heritage Foundation, can't get over the myopia of his erstwhile employers. "For the last seven and a half years, religious conservatives have been wanting a rescue from the Clinton era," he said. "Now that the anti-Clinton has emerged in John McCain, people like Pat Robertson and the establishment are trying to stop him." Wittmann observes that the Christian Coalition's organizational collapse can be traced to the 1996 South Carolina primary, when it saved the candidacy of Bob Dole, the GOP establishment favorite, by engineering a huge turnout in South Carolina. Dole got shellacked in the general election. Wittmann speculates that Robertson has placed all his hopes of the religious right's political resurrection on a Bush restoration. Recently I appeared on "The McLaughlin Group," where I stood up for evangelicals in the House of Representatives on the House chaplain issue. Their prickly questioning of the Catholic priest under consideration wasn't evidence of anti-Catholic bigotry, I said, but of sincere ignorance about Catholic belief and practice. But after what I saw and heard these last few days, I am going to be hard-pressed to find a kind word to say about the Christian Coalition anytime soon.
They--or at least their leaders--did their despicable best to solidify secular power within the Republican Party, even at the expense of a good man's reputation. Their fanatical devotion to Bush may cost Republicans the White House yet again--and guarantee that pro-abortion zealot Al Gore is able to appoint three or more Supreme Court justices in his term. In my Post column the day after the South Carolina results, I complained that the ruthless element of the religious right, whose views on most issues I share, was proving itself lethal to the GOP.

In the next day's e-mail, a religious conservative asked me: "Why do you hate Jesus so much? He died for you, you know." Hmm. That I know; I dispute that George W. Bush died for my sins. When people can't tell the difference between the Christian church and the Republican Party, we Christian believers have reached a sorry state of affairs. And I don't know who is worse off in the bargain, the church or the GOP.

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