With Palin On the Ticket, Evangelicals Are Energized

By Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 1, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn., Aug. 31 -- Outside his evangelical church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Sunday, David Chung was mobbed by friends and church members suddenly excited about the Republican ticket. "I had half a dozen people come up to me," said Chung, a delegate to the Republican National Convention. "It's a night-and-day change."

Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition, reported the same reaction at his church in Atlanta to John McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. "It's really extraordinary," Reed said.

For Christian conservatives, who watched with dismay as their issues were ignored or trivialized during the long Republican primary, the surprise addition to the GOP ticket of a woman raised in a Pentecostal church, who once described herself as "pro-life as any candidate can be," has transformed an election many had come to regard with indifference. Now Republicans such as Reed -- who describes the Palin selection as a "shot directly into the heart of the evangelical movement" -- hope the party will benefit in November from a crucial part of its base that is as energized as the young supporters of Democrat Barack Obama.

Democratic electoral gains, the loss of vocal champions such as former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and the failure of any GOP presidential candidates to emerge as a successor to President Bush in championing their causes were signs that evangelicals' influence was ebbing. The emergence of McCain, who famously denounced leaders of the Christian right in his first presidential race in 2000, seemed to signal further decline.

"Everybody was depressed. Everybody," said Colleen Parro, executive director of the Republican National Coalition for Life.

But McCain's performance at the Saddleback Church candidates forum two weeks ago -- in which he solidly reaffirmed his antiabortion stance -- "perked up" social conservatives, said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. That was followed by the GOP's adoption of a party platform that pleases conservatives.

Now, many evangelicals say Palin offers a fresh opportunity to rejuvenate their movement.

"These are people who have been beat up and beat up by their Republican allies time and time again," said Alan Wolfe, who directs Boston College's Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life. "Their gratitude is actually unseemly. They have leapt up to embrace her without knowing much about her."

Palin's political résumé meets all the essential tests for social conservatives: She opposes same-sex marriage and providing benefits to domestic partners; she backs banning embryonic stem cell research and has raised the idea of teaching creationism alongside evolution in public schools.

In her private life, her religious background -- a spokeswoman for Palin said she regularly attends many nondenominational churches -- and particularly the decision she said she made to have her fifth baby despite being told he had Down syndrome, are powerful testaments for many Christian activists.

Cathie Adams, Texas's incoming national committeewoman, said she is elated to have someone like herself running for one of the nation's highest offices. "It's very exciting to have a person who holds the faith," Adams said after arriving in St. Paul. "I'm sure this is a woman who believes, as I do, let's present evolution and creationism on a level playing field, because when that happens, we know education is happening, not brainwashing, not politics in the classroom."

Jessica Echard, an activist with the Republican National Coalition for Life, said she "wasn't going to put a McCain bumper sticker on my car or a yard sign up" at her Northern Virginia home. "Now, I can't wait to get my McCain-Palin bumper sticker."

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