Fractures on the Far Right

Dana Goldstein

John Hagee's endorsement of Sen. John McCain was calculated to provide McCain with instant credibility among evangelical Christian voters. Instead, the Hagee endorsement has exposed a key fracture within the Republican coalition: tensions between right-wing Catholics and right-wing evangelical Protestants.

When televangelist and San Antonio mega-church pastor John Hagee endorsed John McCain on Feb. 27, the Republican nominee must have breathed a sigh of relief. Task one for McCain's once-struggling primary campaign had been to build trust among anti-choice social conservative voters, who in 2000 were inundated with smear attacks against McCain, accusing him of being gay and fathering an African American child out of wedlock. (In fact, McCain and his wife, Cindy, have an adopted daughter from Bangladesh). The Hagee endorsement was calculated to provide McCain with instant credibility among evangelical Christian voters ahead of the March 4 Texas primary, where McCain faced the last stand of Mike Huckabee, a candidate who made Christian conservatism his calling card by vowing to amend the Constitution to outlaw abortion and same-sex marriage.

Instead, the Hagee endorsement blew up in McCain's face, exposing a key fracture within the Republican coalition: tensions between right-wing Catholics and right-wing evangelical Protestants. Catholic anti-choicers were among the first members of the religious right to flock to the McCain campaign, in part because of suspicions of anti-Catholicism within Huckabee's evangelical movement. Now McCain's Catholic supporters are incensed by their candidate's solicitation of an endorsement from a man who has long derided Catholicism, calling it "the great whore," "the apostate church," and a "false cult system." Despite loud complaints from groups and individuals across the Catholic political spectrum, McCain is refusing to denounce Hagee, saying only that he doesn't agree with all of the pastor's positions.

Of course, Hagee's overheated rhetoric extends to women. "Do you know the difference between a woman with PMS and a snarling Doberman pinscher?" he once asked. "The answer is lipstick. Do you know the difference between a terrorist and a woman with PMS? You can negotiate with a terrorist." And this Hagee tidbit is just right-wing boilerplate: "[T]he feminist movement today is throwing off authority in rebellion against God's pattern for the family."

Opposition to Hagee from the left is to be expected, but dissent among the religious right is a major concern for McCain and the Republican Party in a presidential election year. Catholics, who make up almost a third of the Ameican electorate, are considered a swing constituency in the general election; they preferred George W. Bush over John Kerry by just 5 points in 2004. Alienating Catholics could have serious consequences for McCain's presidential hopes.

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Until the Hagee endorsement, right-wing Catholic leaders had been key to McCain's strategy to undo his (largely unearned) reputation as a social moderate. It's true that McCain supports stem cell research, which most anti-choicers oppose. But he has said he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, and he supports abstinence-only education and the Global Gag Rule, which prevents U.S. foreign aid from funding contraceptives and abortion in the developing world. McCain even voted against legislation that would require insurance companies to cover birth control right here in the U.S. In March 2007, when a reporter asked McCain if he believed condoms could prevent the spread of HIV, the candidate replied, "You've stumped me. … I'm not informed enough on it. Let me find out. You know, I'm sure I've taken a position on it on the past." 

Of course, McCain hasn't let his ignorance of reproductive health issues stop him from making them a major part of his campaign. As the "Straight Talk Express" rolled from Iowa and New Hampshire into the South, overt attacks on women's reproductive freedoms occupied center stage. To observers who bought into McCain's "maverick moderate" image, it seemed quixotic when former presidential candidate Sam Brownback announced his support for McCain last November. After all, the Kansas Senator and Catholic conservative opposes even rape victims' right to choose. But then a spate of extreme social conservative endorsements showed Brownback knew exactly who he was supporting: McCain is dead serious about governing on behalf of the hard right.

In South Carolina, the campaign trotted out Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn to call McCain "an unwavering voice in Congress for the rights of the unborn." A doctor himself, Coburn supports the death penalty for physicians who perform abortions. In January, McCain attracted endorsements from Cathy and Austin Ruse, a prominent couple in the Catholic anti-choice movement. Cathy is a former pro-life spokesperson for the United States' Congress of Catholic Bishops, and Austin is president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, which lobbies the United Nations in opposition to family planning and abortion services worldwide. "We believe that abortion is the greatest civil rights issue of our day," the Ruses said in their statement of support for McCain. (No word on how the Ruses feel about income inequality or housing and workplace discrimination.) Also this winter, Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio, a leader in the effort to ban so-called "partial-birth abortions," signed onto the McCain campaign.

With those endorsements, McCain had plenty of anti-choice credibility even before his ill-fated pas de deux with John Hagee. But in his rush to the Bush right, McCain will leave no stone unturned — even if lurking underneath is the possibility of angering over 60 million American Catholics. Of course, McCain has never been a shoe-in for the Catholic vote; ironically, polls show that like most Americans, Catholics believe abortion should be generally legal. Just more evidence to support the fact that John McCain's views on reproductive health lie well outside of the mainstream.

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