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Trying to Erase 'Evil'
John McCain's Rhetorical Grenades Have Stirred Anger in the GOP And Raised Allegations That He Is Exploiting Religious Differences

By David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 2, 2000; Page A07

Arizona Sen. John McCain loves to compare himself to Luke Skywalker at the end of "Star Wars," piloting his spaceship from the clutches of the Death Star. He usually leaves unsaid what happens next: An enormous explosion.

By attacking certain leaders of the Christian conservative movement as "evil," and by highlighting age-old tensions between conservative Protestants and Catholics in America, McCain has rolled a grenade into the engine room of the Republican Party. And an army of party leaders, prominent conservatives and leading Catholics are furious at him for it--from Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert to former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, a McCain supporter.

Bauer, McCain's most prominent backer from the religious conservative movement, called on McCain yesterday to back down and apologize, while on Capitol Hill, Hastert told a closed-door meeting of Republicans that McCain is endangering the party.

William Bennett, the former secretary of education, has traveled with McCain and was extolling his virtues as recently as Sunday. But yesterday Bennett blasted the senator's remarks. "This is rhetorical overkill not appropriate to a man running for president of the United States," he said. To call religious broadcaster Pat Robertson and Rev. Jerry Falwell "evil" is a "very odd thing," Bennett added, while the appeal to Catholics is "a touchy and explosive subject."

"I don't know what's going on," Bennett said. "I'm not a psychiatrist."

The president of the Catholic League, William Donohue, Cardinal Adam J. Maida of Detroit and renegade conservative Patrick J. Buchanan, long a scourge of the Bush family, all have rebuked McCain.

McCain tried yesterday to put out the fire. When he spoke of "forces of evil," he said, he was adopting the tone of his Luke Skywalker alter ego. "While I disagree with the political message and tactics of Reverends Falwell and Robertson . . . and other self-proclaimed leaders of the Christian right, I do not consider them evil, and I regret that my flip remark may have mistakenly created that impression," McCain said.

Nevertheless, Bush charged that McCain is trying to split the party along religious lines. "John ought to be ashamed of running that kind of campaign," he said.

The furor dates to Bush's Feb. 2 appearance at Bob Jones University in South Carolina. A bastion of Protestant fundamentalism, the university keeps fresh the doctrinal disputes that divided Christians during the Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. In a statement issued this week, the university said it opposes the "false system" of Catholicism out of "love" for the souls of otherwise doomed Catholics.

After Bush won the South Carolina primary, the McCain campaign began targeting Catholic voters in other primary states with telephone calls charging that Bush is soft on anti-Catholicism. Bush was too slow in apologizing, several of his advisers allow, but last week he wrote a long letter to New York's Cardinal John O'Connor repudiating the Bob Jones doctrine.

What worries party leaders is that McCain's strategy--coupled with a flap in the House over whether to choose a Catholic priest as the new chaplain--will divide the GOP's conservative religious base. And that would be very bad for them.

"I'm not worried about this as a Bush person," said one major GOP donor. "There's no foundation for saying he's anti-Catholic, so it won't stick." Bush advisers predict their man will make frequent appearances with prominent Catholics in coming days; on Tuesday, he spent much of the day in close proximity to a priest.

"But I am worried about this as a party person," the donor continued. "I'm worried about the Democrats taking this and making it an issue in the fall."

Since the 1972 landslide victory of Richard M. Nixon, through the Reagan years and up to the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress, Republican fortunes have hinged significantly on the party's ability to link Catholics with evangelical Protestants while downplaying their differences.

Such matters religious have been front-and-center in the minds of party leaders for the past year, as they anointed Bush, filled his war chest with money and buried him with endorsements. Bush speaks the lingo of a born-again Christian but has shown an ability in Texas to attract predominantly Catholic Hispanic voters. His support for faith-based charities appeals to conservatives of every denomination.

"Look at the polling," said Bush strategist Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition. Religious voters are the key to the November election. People strongly feel the economy is on the right track; that's Democratic ground. "But on morality, the numbers invert. More than two-thirds say we're going in the wrong direction." That's where the GOP wants to fight.

McCain, Reed charges, has veered far from the party hymnal. "It seems to me that [his Catholic appeal], combined with his attacks on conservative religious leaders, has led to the use of religion as a wedge issue that I can't ever recall seeing by a major presidential candidate."

McCain supporter Marshall Wittmann of the conservative Heritage Foundation doesn't exactly dispute that. "The coalition is asunder," he says happily. "South Carolina will loom large in the history books as creating the collapse of the religious conservative movement."

Wittmann is perhaps uniquely positioned to analyze a religious war in the GOP. He is Jewish, but he worked two years for the mostly Protestant Christian Coalition. He blames Bush for visiting Bob Jones, and for casting his lot with the fading Robertson. He also notes that Jewish conservatives--few in number, but strategically important to the old Reagan coalition--may leave the team. They see hints of anti-Semitism in Robertson's attacks on McCain's campaign co-chairman, former New Hampshire senator Warren Rudman.

Christian conservatives make up at least a quarter and perhaps a third of the GOP--the largest single chunk of the party's voters. Savaging even such past-their-prime leaders as Robertson and Falwell may not be the surest way to win the nomination. And what about riling up Catholics--will it help McCain win in New York?

"Ask me in a week," says one top Bush adviser.

That week will show whether, now that McCain has blown things up in a cause he feels is righteous, he can pick up the pieces.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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