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Wednesday, February 6, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Religious right's political path now has trails that branch off

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Thunder on the political right booms across the airwaves every election year, but this time the attacks are aimed at the leading Republican presidential contender, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

The biggest thunderclap Tuesday came from an icon of Christian radio, James Dobson, whose "Focus on the Family" program is aired on more than 3,000 radio stations in North America. Dobson said on the syndicated "Laura Ingraham Show" that he would not vote for McCain because the senator "is not a conservative, and in fact has gone out of his way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are."

With McCain marching toward his party's nomination, such criticism is testing the influence of the leaders of the diversifying Christian evangelical movement and the power of talk radio, whose heavyweights, such as Rush Limbaugh, also have been railing against McCain for weeks, with little apparent effect.

"A lot of them are rallying because they think the hour is short," said John Green, a University of Akron political scientist and senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Some conservatives dislike McCain because of his stands on issues, including immigration and climate change. But as Dobson's comments suggest, some are also infuriated by his seeming delight over the years in teaming up with prominent Democrats in opposition to issues high on the Republican agenda.

Dobson's pronouncement hints at the challenge facing McCain in unifying conservative activists.

Scholars who follow the religious right said the Christian conservative bloc that played such an important role in the election and re-election of President Bush has changed significantly in the past few years.

"Evangelicals are not as united as they were four years ago," said Green, author of "The Faith Factor: How Religion Influences American Elections."

What happened? The movement fractured as the interests of many born-again Christians broadened beyond opposition to abortion and gay rights to AIDS, world hunger, genocide in Darfur, the war in Iraq. At the same time, as evangelical leaders such as Rick Warren gained prominence, the connection between some aging leaders and younger evangelicals began to weaken. Dobson, for example, is 71. The Rev. Pat Robertson is 77. The Rev. Jerry Falwell died last year at 73.

"The impact of the older leaders of the Christian right is not as strong as it once was," said Corwin Smidt, director of the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College. "And there are more spokespersons being listened to, and they command some attention and respect."

Warren told a group of Washington Post writers and editors Tuesday that Christianity needs a "second Reformation'" that would steer the church away from divisive politics and be "about deeds, not creeds." He said he still staunchly opposes abortion and same-sex marriage but wants to promote personal responsibility and restore civility in American culture.

In this presidential race, it is not clear who is speaking for evangelicals. Robertson stunned many Christian conservatives last year when he endorsed the thrice-married Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who dropped out of the race last month.

Other factors figure into lack of cohesiveness among evangelicals. Democrats have become more comfortable talking publicly about faith and reaching out to evangelical groups, Smidt said. And Bush has lost popularity among Christian conservatives.

"Some are quite angry at Bush because he didn't do enough on the conservative agenda. Others said he wasn't a compassionate conservative. And others blamed him for not running the government well, pointing to his handling of Hurricane Katrina," Green said.

Will evangelicals follow the lead of Dobson, declining to vote if McCain is the Republican nominee?

That may depend in part on who his Democratic rival is. "I think it would be tough for McCain to unify them [because] many people don't like John McCain," Green said. "But they really don't like Hillary Clinton."

And the potential impact of a sizable number of evangelicals sitting out the election "becomes a very importance calculus," Green said.

Information from The Washington Post is included in this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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