Denver: Evangelicals discuss backing McCain
Vail, CO Colorado
DENVER, Colorado ” Conservative evangelical leaders met privately this week to discuss putting aside their misgivings about John McCain and coalescing around the Republican’s presidential bid while urging him to consider social conservative favorite Mike Huckabee as a running mate.
About 90 of the movement’s leading activists gathered Tuesday night in Denver for a meeting convened by Mathew Staver, who heads the Florida-based legal advocacy group Liberty Counsel.
Many evangelical leaders backed other GOP candidates early on and remain wary of McCain’s commitment to their causes and his previous criticisms of movement leaders. But with the presidential field now set, many evangelical leaders are taking a more pragmatic view, realizing also that the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, is making a strong play for evangelical voters and talking freely about his faith.
“Our shared core values compel us to unite and choose the presidential candidate that best advances those values,” said Staver, who previously backed Huckabee’s bid. “That obvious choice is Sen. John McCain. I think people left the meeting in unity the likes of which have not been evident through the primaries.”
The group also agreed to sign a letter urging the McCain campaign to consider Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist minister, as his vice presidential choice, said another participant, Phil Burress. Burress, who heads an Ohio group that helped pass an anti-gay marriage measure in that state in 2004, was among a group of conservative Christian leaders who met with McCain last week.
Burress characterized the Huckabee overture as a “suggestion, not a demand.”
“This is a man you don’t threaten,” Burress said of McCain. “His principles are his principles. The last thing you want to do is try to force him to do something he doesn’t want to do because he’d probably do the opposite.”
Burress said that while Huckabee is a favorite of Christian conservatives, the most important thing is that McCain’s running mate be “pro-life and pro-family.” Huckabee isn’t a favorite of all evangelical leaders, either; some dislike his populist message, emphasis on the environment and economic positions.
The leaders meeting in Denver included Phyllis Schlafly, head of the Eagle Forum; “Left Behind” co-author Tim LaHaye and his wife, Beverly, founder of Concerned Women for America; David Barton, founder of WallBuilders; Rick Scarborough of Vision America; and Don Hodel, a former interior secretary and former president of Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, according to Staver.
James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family and a fan of neither McCain nor Obama, did not attend. Dobson has been in California working on a new book, aides have said.
Time magazine first reported on the meeting on its Web site Wednesday.
Staver said the result will be more leaders “energizing their base” and targeted efforts in battleground states and states with anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives this fall such as Florida and California.
“Obama is a considerable threat to our values,” Staver said. “At the same time, Sen. McCain recently has been reaching out to evangelicals and conservative voters that we represent.”
Even so, Burress said that at this point, conservative Christians are motivated more out of opposition to Obama than enthusiasm for McCain.
“People are not saying, ‘Let’s all go out and support John McCain,'” Burress said. “It’s more like, ‘We have to do what we have to do for our country.’ Basically, that boiled down to John McCain.”
Although McCain opposes abortion rights, his support for embryonic stem cell research and opposition to a federal amendment prohibiting gay marriage clashes with the widely held social conservative view.
Obama this week called for expanding White House efforts to steer social service dollars to religious groups, and he has developed campaign events targeting religious voters. But the Democrat’s support for abortion rights and gay rights calls into question how many evangelical votes he can win.
“The only evangelicals that will support Obama are the ones who haven’t read their Bible,” Burress said. “The more and more we learn about Obama, the closer and closer we get to McCain.”
“We have agreed,” he said, “that we’ll be working hard the next few months.”