The Post on McCain’s Evangelicals

Lots of bark...but where's the bite?

Ever since John McCain formally rejected the support of the controversial pastors John Hagee and Rod Parsley last week, I’d been wondering: Would McCain’s move hurt him with evangelical Christians, for whom Hagee and Parsley are important leaders?

So when I saw a story in today’s Washington Post headlined, “In Rebuking Minister, McCain May Have Alienated Evangelicals,” I anticipated a serious effort to shed light on the question.

I was disappointed. The piece—which goes on to declare that McCain’s move “brought criticism…from evangelicals, who said he may have alienated a powerful bloc of potential Republican leaders”—quotes just one evangelical leader in support of that idea. That’s Bishop Harry R. Jackson, who tells the Post:

He wants us to support him, but as soon as his back was against the wall, he over-reacted. He is now less likely to get the evangelical vote, and will have a difficult time getting strong endorsements from other ministers.

There’s no evidence in the piece that any other evangelicals were willing to express agreement with this notion even off the record.

And as for Jackson, it’s not clear how influential he really is. As the Post notes, he’s the founder and chair of the High Impact Leadership Coalition, which “advises ministers on political and policy issues.” But the Post doesn’t mention that Jackson is an African-American in a movement dominated by whites—and his ability to sway the votes of rank-and-file evangelicals is at best unproven.

The only other piece of evidence cited by the Post in support of the idea that McCain’s rebuke of either Parsley or Hagee alienated evangelicals comes from political consultant Doug Wead, who is not himself identified as an evangelical, but is said to have “ranked 1000 pastors for former president George H. W. Bush to court for endorsements.” Wead offers an endorsement of the Post’s thesis that’s at best equivocal:

For McCain to have to repudiate these people is much worse than [n]ever having their endorsement in the first place. If evangelical Christians feel this is an attack on them, even if they don’t agree with Parsley or Hagee or follow them, it could galvanize them against McCain. (emphasis ours)

And that’s it. The story offers no further evidence of any kind to back up its central premise, other than detailing the fact that Parsley is clearly an influential figure among evangelical Christians.

In fact, the whole effort to report the question seems amazingly insubstantial. Although four Post staffers appear to have worked on this story, none of them seems to have talked to any ordinary evangelical voters—a reporting avenue which one might think would be crucial for assessing whether these voters do indeed feel alienated.

To be clear, I’m perfectly willing to believe that McCain’s rebuke of the pastors will give him trouble with evangelicals. But I’d need to see much more evidence than what’s presented here. Indeed, on balance, the story makes me slightly less likely, rather than more, to believe it. After all, if McCain had truly alienated evangelicals, wouldn’t you expect the Post to be able to come up with more than one real-life evangelical saying so?

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.