Four years ago, the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign hosted a reception for Southern Baptist pastors at a hotel across the street from their annual meeting. The country is electing a president again, the Baptists are meeting again and John McCain's campaign is nowhere to be seen at a gathering of 7,200 people, most of them staunch Republicans.
The absence has some Southern Baptists wondering whether the Arizona senator wants their vote. Others are more sympathetic to a campaign still gearing up, a candidate not known for talking about his faith, and reticence McCain might feel over his recent rejection of two endorsements by high-profile, evangelical pastors.
In interviews, Southern Baptist leaders and the rank-and-file said they were warily waiting for McCain to inspire them while acknowledging that they will vote for him anyway now that Sen. Barack Obama , far too liberal for most Southern Baptists, is the presumptive Democratic nominee. "There's a lack of fire and passion for (McCain) right now, and for him to win, that fire has to be kindled," said the Rev. Jack Graham, a former president of the 16.2 million-member denomination based in Nashville, Tenn., and among its most politically connected leaders. "It's going to be a close election," Graham said. "That's why John McCain, in his attempts to run to the center, needs to make sure he doesn't forget the people who will support him most aggressively on the issues that matter."
Despite that sentiment, a poll released this week showed that evangelicals do not appear to be running away from McCain. The survey, conducted in April and May by Calvin College's Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics, found that about 10 percent of evangelicals planned to sit out the election, about the same number as in 2004.
The survey, taken before the Democratic field was settled, found McCain winning 59 percent of the evangelical vote, compared to President Bush's 65 percent at the same juncture in 2004. "On the one hand, (McCain) can say, 'Where are the core traditional voters going to go, other than sit at home?"' said Corwin Smidt, director of the Henry center. "If you have limited resources, focus on groups that are more swing and more crucial.
On the other hand, to ignore your base is to do so at your peril." Jeff Sadosky, a McCain campaign spokesman, said Wednesday the campaign is working to build up its organization and motivate conservative voters "so we're successful in November."
The Rev. Frank Page, the SBC's outgoing president, said many evangelicals might not be enthused by McCain but most will vote for him. McCain's pledge to nominate Supreme Court justices with a conservative judicial philosophy is a huge draw, Page said. Page saw some positive in the lack of a McCain campaign presence in Indianapolis. "I have admonished - lovingly but firmly - our convention not to get too close to any political party," Page said. "Parties change. I think we need to stay close to issues, and not hold allegiance to political parties." Page has kept his door open to politicians regardless of party, and has met with Obama.
The Illinois senator, forced to reject his former pastor for his inflammatory rhetoric, has launched an ambitious faith-based outreach program. He met in Chicago this week with an array of religious leaders, including conservatives like Bishop T.D. Jakes and Franklin Graham. "What I hear from people," said Richard Land, president of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission, "is, 'John McCain was not my first choice, John McCain was not my second choice, John McCain was not my third choice.
However, I would rather have a third-rate fireman than a first-class arsonist.' And they view Obama as a first-class arsonist." Land and others believe the California Supreme Court's recent decision to legalize same-sex marriage will energize evangelical voters. SBC "messengers," or delegates, approved a resolution Wednesday night condemning the ruling as a "terrible wrong," supporting a state amendment to overturn it and calling for a federal constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage.
McCain opposes a federal marriage amendment, believing the question is for states. SBC messengers approved a separate resolution urging political engagement while warning leaders of the dangers of endorsing candidates and "politicizing the church and the pulpit." If Brad and Amy Brandon of Lebanon, Tenn., are any indication, McCain has work to do. Neither would vote for Obama - "never" both said - but McCain remains a puzzle.
The couple stopped at a booth in the meeting's enormous exhibition hall that urged Baptists to "test their voting IQ" and join an e-mail list that will seek to get out the "values" vote. Brad Brandon, a 36-year-old pastor, said he was leaning McCain but not excited about it. "He's wavered on abortion," Brandon said. "I think he's pro-choice." McCain isn't. His voting record is against abortion rights. "I can see why a lot of people, especially Republicans, don't want to vote," Amy Brandon said. "There's so much uncertainty now - on the economy, on immigration. You almost want a Reagan, someone strong. I don't think we have that in any of the candidates right now."