It wasn't supposed to be a culture-war election, and not only because Iraq and the economy had shoved values issues into the background.
The Republican candidate, at least back in his early, presumptive days, was notoriously uncomfortable talking about religion, and many conservative Christian leaders were equally uncomfortable with him. John McCain, after all, had once called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance." In a straw poll held at last year's Values Voter Summit, he came in last among the Republican hopefuls. And James Dobson, head of the influential Focus on the Family, let it be known that he wouldn't vote for McCain "under any circumstances."
The Democratic candidate, by contrast, was at ease with his faith, biblically fluent, and reportedly doing an excellent job of reaching out to the elusive values voter. Barack Obama's efforts to attract those voters were complicated by the Jeremiah Wright episode, the unfounded Muslim rumors, and his steadfast support of Roe v. Wade. Nevertheless, a Barna Group poll conducted before the political conventions showed him leading his Republican opponent in 18 of 19 faith communities, the only exception being evangelicals.
But it wasn't just that McCain and Obama seemed so ill-suited to the usual culture-warrior roles. Evangelicals, conservative Roman Catholics, and other values voters themselves seemed to be changing. Younger ones in particular were said to be broadening their agenda beyond abortion and gay marriage and paying less attention to the older, more single-minded leaders of the religious right. No longer would they be part of a single voting bloc, captive to a single party—or so declared a widely circulated "Evangelical Manifesto" issued in May by a number of prominent evangelical scholars and clergy. "People were saying that Obama really could compete for young evangelicals," says David Masci, a senior research fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
On top of that, symptoms of culture-war fatigue were widespread. Such prominent culture warriors as Pat Buchanan had declared that values issues were more appropriately resolved at the state and local levels than at the national one. For the first time in more than 10 years, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, a slim majority of Americans, including conservative voters, were saying that they wanted less religion in politics, not more.
But something happened on the way to the party conventions. At the much-ballyhooed leadership forum August 16 at Saddleback Church in Southern California, the Rev. Rick Warren quizzed both candidates on their deepest convictions. McCain came across as confident and certain, particularly on the hot-button question of when life begins. Obama seemed to struggle with nuances. In front of a predominantly evangelical audience, certainty played better than nuance. McCain came out of Saddleback with a bounce and new confidence. Maybe he could talk this talk, after all?
Conservative activists began to think so. "The real change came at Saddleback," says Randy Brinson, whose organization, Redeem the Vote, played a key role in getting values voters to the polls in the 2004 election. Tony Perkins, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group, says that Saddleback was one of the three things that re-energized social conservatives. The second was what he calls the "most family-friendly" platform ever drafted by the Republican Party. And the third, of course, was McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.
Push from Palin. It was a choice that surprised most social conservatives. Fearing that McCain was tending toward abortion-rights supporters Sen. Joe Lieberman or former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, conservative activists lobbied hard for him to reconsider. They reminded the candidate that roughly three quarters of the Republican convention delegates opposed abortion. But even the day before he announced his pick, it was unclear which way McCain would go. Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony's List, an anti-abortion political action committee, says that Palin's name did not even appear on a list of 10 possible candidates that was then being whispered about.