McCain Doesn't Have a Prayer
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Phoenix, July 13th, Sunday morning. Thank God John McCain has declared that he wants to wallpaper the continent with new nuke plants, because now the chances are better that this wretched slab of hot, birdshit-covered asphalt they call a state will be blown to hell in an accident someday. I hate this place. Once the sun comes up on an Arizona weekend, nothing moves except the occasional elderly-piloted Buick floating boatlike in the direction of some hideous megachurch.
This morning I've come to one of those monstrosities, North Phoenix Baptist Church, to witness John McCain's halfhearted offensive in his battle to win over the Christian right. On the stump, McCain talks about God less than any Republican politician in recent memory -- certainly less than any Republican I've ever seen. The guy pitches a tent visible from a mile off whenever anyone so much as mentions the military; you can almost hear the dopamine surging into his bloodstream every time someone stands up in a town hall and begins a question by saying, "Hello, Senator, my husband was a Navy pilot. . . ." And he seems positively tumescent when talking about such horrors as Al Qaeda or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But his basic stump speech doesn't contain a single line about God or religion. McCain is probably the first Republican in modern history to talk more about "green technology" than about his personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
While Barack Obama gives regular addresses at churches, where he comes off very like a preacher (right down to his natty blue suits and his lilting oratory), McCain's chosen stump locations are invariably VFW halls or factory sites -- where he tries to win over working-class crowds by telling them that their jobs aren't coming back. As the nominee of a party that has swept two straight elections by hawking cheap pieties and ramming one preposterous lie after another down the public's throat, McCain's agnostically bummerific public-speaking strategy is a curiosity, to say the least.
Here's the thing about John McCain, and it's never easy to tell whether this is a good quality or a bad one. He's a shitty liar. He may be willing to change his position on anything from immigration to torture to campaign finance at the drop of a hat to win votes, and he may have no problem aiming below the belt -- below the knees even -- to impugn an opponent's patriotism. But this is not a guy who can get up in front of a churchgoing crowd in Asscrack, Arkansas, and start weeping to Jesus. In fact, he appears to deeply resent the implication that he needs to genuflect to the baby savior at all. As in, "Hell, I already lived through five years of torture! You want me to do more?"
The Republican party returned to power at the beginning of this decade thanks to a brilliantly innovative political hybrid represented in its most advanced form by the Bush-Cheney ticket -- a high-tech engine of ruthless neocon capitalism wedded to a half-literate aristocrat dunce hiding his alcoholism in born-again Christian platitudes. Add corporate money to fundamentalist-Christian demographics in a country as dumb and superstitious as America, and you can vaporize a century's worth of Al Gores and John Kerrys.
But here's how fucked that seemingly unstoppable coalition is this time around, now that the ticket is headed by an aging Goldwaterite named John McCain: The candidate has only recently come around to the idea that the Republican nominee in the age of Bush and the evangelical ayatollahs has to go to church regularly. When asked recently if he is an evangelical Christian, McCain answered, "I attend church." When asked how often, he said, "Not as often as I should."
So in recent weeks, to prove his piety, McCain has taken to dragging himself out of bed on Sunday mornings to attend services at North Phoenix Baptist, not-so-subtly announcing his devotions to his traveling press. ("Yeah, they started telling us he was going to church about a month ago," one McCain-beat reporter chuckled to me on the Straight Talk Express. "Like, Oh, by the way, he's going to church again. At this address, if you want to check. . . .") Originally baptized an Episcopalian, McCain claims that he's been attending this Southern Baptist church for some 15 years, despite the fact that his 2007 congressional biography lists his faith as Episcopalian. But in a touching display of his apparent unwillingness to do absolutely anything to get elected, McCain still hasn't been baptized in his new church -- he's not born-again, in other words. Dude is holding out for some reason. Like he's afraid to lie to God. A politician, afraid to lie!
The marriage of fundamentalist Christianity and the conservative movement has been a powerful force in world affairs. It has been the best smoke screen the archpriests of supply-side economics could possibly have had, giving Wall Street a populist in with the very people victimized the most by their union-busting, deregulatory policies. It turned out, for decades, that Bible-thumping Americans didn't mind having their jobs shipped to China, so long as someone was worrying about the air supply to Terri Schiavo's brain lump. As political cons go, this was the ultimate gift that kept on giving.
It all had to end sometime, though, and that sometime might be now. Nervous, white, sexually inhibited Protestants with fourth-grade educations are becoming a smaller and smaller share of the country's population, and the Christian right is increasingly frustrated with the Republican Party's failure to transform America into a fundamentalist caliphate. (Forget about abortion: After eight years of Republican rule, Christians can't even put up the Ten Commandments in Alabama without someone bitching about it.) But the last straw just might come down to one Republican politician's personal idiosyncrasies. All the party needed was one more pious, Scripture-quoting, hair-spray-soaked whore to hold this thing together for another four years, and instead they got John McCain. And John McCain may break up three decades of GOP Jesus-flogging simply because he is too afraid to get his forehead wet. Wouldn't that be something?
North Phoenix Baptist is an ideal spiritual hiding place for a reluctant believer. For anyone with private doubts about the religious right, or even religion in general, the place's architectural setup -- with its thousands of seats and its giant twin TV monitors for reading hymn lyrics and its stoned-looking crowd of sun-damaged, elderly white retirees in golf garb -- is the perfect venue to hunker down and take your lumps once a week. Even I blend in, crouched a dozen rows up from McCain and his wife, Cindy, on the right side of the auditorium, mouthing the words to a half-hour of excruciating hymns.
Dan Yeary, the pastor of North Phoenix Baptist, doesn't bear much resemblance to the torch-bearing bigots of the Ted Haggard/Jesus Camp variety. He's a low-key Southwesterner with a kindly smile who seems to recognize that his aging congregation prefers the weak beer of mild spiritual encouragement to the 10-alarm chili you find in the witch-hunting Bible Belt. But on this day, he has crafted a sermon that seems to be aimed directly at the casual believer who thinks going to church once a week makes him holy. "We're not talking about paying dues at a country club," Yeary preaches. "This isn't about ritual. This is about a relationship."
Yeary talks about how important baptism is as a symbol of one's submission to God, "the first act of obedience." Then he tells a story about Abe Lincoln -- another famously vacillating Republican claimed by both atheists and Christians alike. The story involves a pastor who took Lincoln to hear another famous pastor speak. When the fiery oratory was over, Lincoln's friend asked him what he thought of the sermon.
"Lincoln said it was fine," relates Yeary. "The friend said, 'Fine? Just fine? Why?' And Lincoln answered, 'He did not ask me to do anything great for God.' "
Yeary carefully avoids looking over at the conspicuously unbaptized McCain. "That's what I want," he says. "I want to be part of people who take God seriously."
I watch McCain throughout the sermon. When the story is over, he flashes his creepy Count Chocula smile -- the same one he pulls out, teeth bared, after his That's not change we can believe in! stump line -- but otherwise doesn't react. Everybody on our side of the chapel is glancing over at him.
In a way, this scene says everything you need to know about McCain's dilemma. The man is a relic from a previous era of conservatism, when privacy was sacrosanct and public expressions of religiosity were considered vulgar and in bad taste. McCain comes from a generation of American men for whom religion was a ticket you punched once a week, a low-effort symbol of conformity to go with your two-car garage, your sorority-girl wife and your weekly golf game with the fellas. The whole braying-to-the-moon, born-again Promise Keeper act perfected by the Bushes and Huckabees of the world is as alien to his sensibility as an Iron John man-poetry retreat. Sitting here in the North Phoenix Baptist pews, he has a look on his face like he'd just as well suck a cock as do an altar call. It's one of his most likable qualities.
It's not like McCain isn't going to get Christian votes. In fact, his relationship with fundamentalist Christian groups has come a long way since last year, when some Christian leaders vowed to sit out the election if McCain was the nominee. Back then, it really looked bleak: Some prominent Christians sounded like they would rather have baguettes shoved up their asses than go anywhere near McCain come November. "Speaking as a private individual, I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances," declared James Dobson, head of the influential Focus on the Family.
The Dobson comment came in January 2007, on a radio program called Jerry Johnson Live, a broadcast that exposed McCain's weaknesses with regard to the Christian community. Dobson was holding forth about this and that when the host suddenly whipped out an old audio recording of McCain offering his opinion about a key "values" issue. It was the kind of nightmarish, weirdly tolerant quip that seems to bubble up from McCain's past with unnerving regularity: "I think, uh . . . I think that gay marriage should be allowed if there's a ceremony kind of thing, if you wanna call it that," incredulous conservative listeners could hear McCain saying. "I don't have any problem with that."
That was enough for Dobson. "He's not in favor of traditional marriage, and I pray that we won't get stuck with him," he growled.
But that was back in the days when Huckabee was still a candidate and a whole field of more openly pious and gay-bashing Republicans had not yet dropped out. Since then, McCain has dealt with his weakness on the gay-marriage issue as he has dealt with countless others -- by changing his mind. In fact, McCain changed his mind barely 11 minutes after the above "gay marriage should be allowed" statement, made on Hardball back in October 2006. "I believe that if people want to have private ceremonies, that's fine," he said in his about-face. "I do not believe that gay marriage should be legal." Just last week, McCain also came out against gay adoption. But for the most part, his strategy has been to just stop talking about any of this shit at all, recognizing that his political situation vis--vis the religious right improved dramatically without him saying a word the minute his chief opponent stopped being ex-preacher Mike Huckabee and started being queer-loving, Bernie Mac buddy Barack Obama.
It's McCain's newfound status as the lesser of two evils that recently won him a previously unthinkable triumph -- the pledged support of more than 100 Christian groups who met in Denver on July 1st to create a so-called "Declaration of American Values." Organized by Mat Staver, chairman of the fundamentalist group Liberty Counsel, the declaration was an attempt to reunite a Christian right that, as Staver tells me, had suffered "through a fractious primary season. There were a lot of hurt feelings." The group -- which included notables on the religious right like Phyllis Schlafly and Tim Lahaye -- settled on a list of 10 basic principles, including the perennial sanctity of life and anti-gay-marriage stuff, as well as some weirder and less biblically obvious demands supporting unfettered gun ownership and opposing taxation "of a progressive nature."
And while the group came out in support of McCain, Staver is anxious that this not be interpreted as a broad expression of enthusiasm by the Christian right. "Uh, the media somewhat didn't accurately report that," he says with obvious fright in his voice. "This wasn't a Declaration of American Values in support of John McCain. This was a statement of support for those core values." It was agreed, Staver clarifies, that supporting McCain in this election was merely the best choice for the "short term." And the reason for that, he says, is that the election of Barack Obama would "decimate American values." From there, Staver is off and running about Obama's record on abortion rights and gay marriage, and how generally an Obama election would bring about the end of civilization; he said almost nothing about McCain.
I get the same response when I speak to Kristi Hamrick of the Campaign for Working Families, a political fundraising group affiliated with former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, who was one of the first prominent Christian-right leaders to pledge support for McCain. When I ask a general question about how evangelicals will vote in the fall, Hamrick immediately focuses on Obama. "When California endorsed gay marriage, Barack Obama said it was a good idea. John McCain didn't," she tells me. "It would be different if we had a pro-choice Republican running, but we don't. We have a pro-life Republican."
But despite the nearly monolithic support of the organized Christian right for McCain now that the infidel Obama is on the ballot, there's no guarantee that Christian voters are buying McCain as the electoral protector of biblical family values. In fact, McCain's backtracking with regard to the religious right seems to have had an off-putting effect: A recent poll shows that only one in 10 registered voters are more likely to vote for McCain now that he is campaigning with the religious right. Two in 10, on the other hand, say they are now less likely to vote for him.
The real problem here might be that McCain's stubborn refusal to pull a full-court Huckabee on the God front has coincided with (a) an impending economic catastrophe and (b) statements by one of his closest advisers, Phil Gramm, to the effect that America is in a "mental recession" and is a "nation of whiners." As a result, McCain now has the daunting task of somehow keeping voters in economically hard-hit evangelical regions mesmerized by Bible-humping, gay-bashing bullshit, despite the fact that he only started going to church regularly a month ago and as recently as a year ago was actually saying gay people are human beings. If he doesn't, who knows -- people might actually start voting according to their economic interests, which would be disastrous for a Republican Party that has duped America's white underclass for decades, thanks to Christian conservatism.
But that's only if McCain keeps up his present habit of not playing the God card on the stump. "If the contrast between the candidates on social issues is heightened enough, then those evangelical voters will eventually come back on board," says James Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland who tracks voter demographics in real time for a project called Patchwork Nation. The project recently found that counties with large populations of Christian evangelicals have been hit especially hard by high gas prices and foreclosures, creating greater anxiety leading up to the election.
Gimpel concedes, however, that McCain is not doing a whole lot right now to "heighten" that contrast. "Yeah, he doesn't seem very interested in campaigning on those social issues," he says. "Unless he turns it around or gets surrogates to make that case for him, some evangelicals might sit it out."
McCain is so bad at this game that when it came time for him to pick an evangelical date for the prom, he chose the one preacher crazy enough to make even trailer-dwelling Southerners nervous -- John Hagee, a beach-ball-shaped apocalypse merchant whose views on Catholicism would raise eyebrows at a Klan meeting. Classic McCain: He kicks off his presidential run in 2000 by insulting North American vote-generating champion Jerry Falwell, then heads into 2008 with his arms wrapped around an obscure televangelist whose only electoral pull is in the next world. As a result, the most influential leaders on the Christian right are keeping their distance. "Uh, no," says a spokesman for Focus on the Family, when I ask if Dobson has changed his mind about McCain, even with Obama on the ticket. "He hasn't changed his mind. No way."
Watching these once-united wings of the Republican juggernaut devolve into frank mutual suspicion and distaste along the runway to almost certain electoral disaster is, of course, a delicious development. The Moral Majority Christians and the supply-side neocons always represented two of the worst and most vile impulses in the American character -- mass, willful ignorance and total, shameless greed. In one wing of the ruling-party mansion they housed preachers who transformed the religion of "turn the other cheek" and "go, give away all your possessions to the poor" into a "Christianity" that celebrated shock-and-awe bombing and assault-rifle ownership and decried the progressive income tax as unfair to the propertied class. In the other wing they housed "conservatives" who turned the party of limited government into a giant snooping apparatus, one that borrowed trillions against the future earnings of ordinary taxpayers and sacrificed thousands of lives to snatch a few Middle Eastern oil wells for companies that were rich as hell to begin with.
The Bible-thumpers, mainly working- and middle-class whites with limited educations from the landlocked states of the South and the Midwest, would seem to have had little in common with the archpriests of the neoconservative movement, who as it happened were mainly Jewish academics with fancy degrees from the East and West Coasts. But they did: They shared an almost equal disdain for democracy, free speech and learning, and paradise for both groups was an intellectually mute America of vast malls, prisons packed full of ungrateful blacks, shitty TV programming to keep the brains chilled and 200-foot-high electrified fences along the Rio Grande. And lots of hero worship of soldiers, if not so much in the way of VA benefits.
This vision looked unstoppable for a while; there was a time in the early Bush years when this mean-spirited program of flag-waving, gun-toting biblical nationalism looked destined to become a kind of continental religion, a Church of America our missionaries would spread everywhere -- and woe to those liberals and Frenchmen and other heretics who didn't get with the program! Then we left them in office for a while, and it turned out that our would-be nationalist priests were totally stupid and completely incompetent at running anything at all, much less the world economy. And suddenly the red states stopped looking so much red as broke and fucked and responsible for a giant mess that even they didn't pretend to know the way out of.
It was at this low point in the Christian-corporate marriage that John McCain stepped into the breach to wreck the demographic even more. At this critical moment, the party needed a turbocharged con man to revive the old religion, and what they got was an old man with doubts who can barely bring himself to go to church on Sundays. The worst possible scenario. Or the funniest, depending on how you look at things.