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ERLC’s Land: McCain’s attacks on Christian leaders ‘despicable’

WASHINGTON (BP)–Republican Party presidential candidate John McCain’s criticisms of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance” and as an “evil influence” are part of an attempt “to divide people by religion [that] is despicable and un-American,” said Southern Baptist ethics agency head Richard Land March 1.

McCain, a United States senator from Arizona who is battling Texas Gov. George W. Bush for the GOP nomination, described Roberston and Falwell in a speech in Virginia Beach, Va., as “on the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance,” comparing them to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and liberal New York activist Al Sharpton.

A day later, McCain told reporters in California the two conservative Christians have an “evil influence” over his party and likened them to “the forces of evil,” according to a March 1 report in The New York Times.

Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, responded March 1, “I don’t agree with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell about many things, but to compare them to Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton, who are racists and hate-mongers, and then to follow it up by calling these two ministers an evil influence is disgraceful behavior by someone who claims the title of being a uniter and not a divider.”

After McCain’s speech in Virginia, Land said on the Feb. 29 broadcast of “For Faith and Family,” the ERLC’s daily radio program, it was “as scurrilous and as hate-mongering a speech and as shameful a speech as I’ve heard a major presidential candidate give in a while, certainly a major Republican presidential candidate.

“There is a double standard here. Evangelical Christians are the last group in America that people can make the most outrageous statements about with impunity,” Land said.

Land told Baptist Press March 1, “I predicted when I heard John McCain’s outrageous remarks on Monday that Sen. McCain was going to end up accomplishing what no conservative Christian individual or group has been able to do, and that is fully energize and engage Christian conservatives in the public-policy process. Many Christian conservatives had become extremely disillusioned with the public-policy process and were at best ambivalent at participating in this year’s election.

“But when two of their leaders are attacked in such an unfair and outrageous manner and called an evil influence, it has energized them like nothing else I have ever seen.”

McCain’s targeting of Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition, and Falwell, a Baptist pastor and founder of the now-defunct Moral Majority, produced no apparent upswing for his candidacy. Bush won Feb. 29 primaries in both Virginia and Washington, as well as caucuses in North Dakota.

McCain also received some bad news as the March 7 primaries in 12 states, including California and New York, near. McCain’s lead over Bush among Roman Catholics in New York, which had been 16 points as recently as Feb. 26, had disappeared by Feb. 29, with Bush holding a small lead, according to a Zogby poll reported in The Washington Times.

While Robertson and Falwell have not issued official statements in response to McCain, both Catholic and evangelical leaders have rebuked the candidate.

“Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were evil. But to say that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are evil is to trivialize the term and thereby make light of what truly is worthy of that name,” William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said in a March 1 statement.

American Family Association President Donald Wildmon told Conservative News Service he “deeply resented” McCain’s comparison of the Christian leaders with Farrakhan and Sharpton.

“This was an utterly stupid statement to make, and it’s going to hurt his chances for the Republican nomination,” Wildmon said.

McCain, in his speech near Robertson’s eastern-Virginia headquarters, applauded the work of such evangelical leaders as Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, and James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family. McCain called himself a “pro-life, pro-family, fiscal conservative.”

He said “union bosses who have subordinated the interests of working families to their own ambitions, to their desire to preserve their own political power at all costs are mirror images of Pat Robertson,” according to an abridged transcript in The New York Times. “Just as we embrace working people, we embrace the fine members of the religious conservative community,” McCain said. “But that does not mean that we will pander to their self-appointed leaders.

“Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.”

Campaigning Feb. 29 in California, McCain decried to reporters “the evil influence that [Robertson and Falwell] exercise over the Republican Party,” The New York Times reported. “To stand up and take on the forces of evil, that’s my job, and I can’t steer the Republican Party if those two individuals have the influence that they have on the party today,” he said.

One former leader of a pro-family organization identified with the conservative Christian movement continued to support McCain even after his Feb. 28 criticisms of Robertson and Falwell. Gary Bauer served as president of the Family Research Council for more than 10 years before stepping down last year to run for the GOP nomination. He exited the race in early February and endorsed McCain about two weeks later. Since then, he has campaigned for the Arizona senator.

In an opinion piece in the Feb. 29 issue of The New York Times, Bauer said McCain “was hardly jettisoning the religious right” in his speech the previous day. “He was careful to make a clear distinction between certain organizational leaders and the vast grass roots of religious conservatives with whom he shares a great concern for traditional values,” Bauer wrote.

Bauer admitted in an interview with NBC News, according to Conservative News Service, he would not have made McCain’s comparison of Robertson and Falwell with Farrakhan and Sharpton. “I think Sharpton and Farrakhan are really on the fringe,” Bauer said. “They’ve urged people to violence, so I don’t think the comparison was a valid one.”

Land said on the Feb. 29 broadcast, “For [Bauer] to say that he regrets that McCain did it and he wished he hadn’t is weak, weak, weak. It’s insufficient. He should use whatever influence he has with Sen. McCain to call upon Sen. McCain to apologize for that outrageous and offensive comparison.”

McCain’s strikes against Robertson and Falwell are only the latest in a campaign that has included several scuffles involving religion in recent weeks.

Robertson promoted Bush’s campaign in the South Carolina primary and produced a telephone outreach in Michigan in which he, via a prerecorded message, called Warren Rudman, a McCain campaign chairman, a “vicious bigot” for his criticisms of some religious conservatives.

A McCain-supported telephone campaign in Michigan, Virginia and Washington state sought to connect Bush with anti-Catholic statements by the leaders of Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian school in Greenville, S.C., where Bush spoke during the campaign. Bush sent a letter to Cardinal O’Connor of New York apologizing for not speaking against the anti-Catholic statements in his February address on the campus.

The McCain campaign denied involvement with the calls before admitting it had approved them.

“Sen. McCain claims to be a uniter and not a divider,” Land said, “and then runs outrageously religion-baiting campaign phone calls in several primary states and then denies for several days that he and his campaign are responsible until he is presented with undeniable evidence and then acknowledges that he not only authorized it but approved the text.

“Over the last few years we’ve coined a term to describe such behavior — Clintonesque.” Land said.

Chuck Donovan, director of Family Research Council, called for a truce among the candidates about religion.

In a Feb. 28 statement, Donovan said he was sending an open letter to the presidential candidates in both parties “urging them to turn away from these destructive diatribes and to address the fundamental issues affecting the moral core of this nation. This would be a politics of issues, not personalities, of substance, not tactics.

“The alternative is to continue to court the bitterness of religious character assassination, wounds that are slow to heal and that scar with a terrible hardness.”

Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., had been an independent Baptist his entire ministry, but his church also has identified with the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia in recent years.