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 about him. 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.
But it wasn't just that John McCain and Barack Obama seemed so ill suited to the usual culture-warrior roles. Evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and other values voters themselves seemed to be changing.
Younger ones, in particular, were broadening the 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" signed by a number of prominent evangelical scholars and clergy. Up for grabs, these voters were looking more like other Americans. And for the first time in more than 10 years, 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 a much ballyhooed discussion at Saddleback Church, one of America's biggest megachurches, 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? And, lo, when the conventions came, there was much faith-related talk as well as some important faith-related choices.
Officially, there might have been even more religion talk at the Denver convention, where a number of sessions led by assorted faith leaders bespoke the Democrats' new resolve to take religion seriously. But those sessions received little attention from the media, which were preoccupied with how Hillary Clinton would anoint Obama as the rightful heir of her devoted flock. In his speech, Obama's vice presidential pick, Joe Biden, an experienced candidate with a solid working-class Catholic background, hewed to his usual practice of keeping his religion to himself. And Obama himself delivered what was, for him, a fairly God-free acceptance speech.
Religion at the GOP's St. Paul gathering played out differently. The convention's opening was preceded by sotto voce concerns from evangelicals and others that McCain might pick an abortion rights supporter, such as Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge, as his running mate. Then came sighs of relief followed by hallelujahs when a re-energized base learned that the choice was Sarah Palin, who brought hope incarnate, in the exuberant words of Rush Limbaugh, for "guns, babies, Jesus."
A lineup of once-reluctant conservative Christian leaders now came out forcefully for McCain. Even James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, said that he would pull the lever for the man whom Dobson had earlier said he couldn't support "under any circumstances."
When Palin addressed the convention, she made it abundantly clear why she was there: Alluding to Obama's gaffe about working-class Americans who turn to guns and God when the economy sours, she presented herself as proof that his characterization was not only false but condescending. Proof, furthermore, that he was out of touch with God-fearing heartland America.
McCain hardly needed to say any more on that point when it came time for him to speak. His choice of Palin said it all. Not only was she anti-abortion; she was against it in all cases. Not only was she pro-gun; she was a hunter herself.
The Palin pick was McCain's way of reigniting the culture war, a limited culture war, while not getting too directly involved in it. Depending on how it works out, it will be deemed a brilliant or disastrous strategy. At the very least, it is a risky one.
McCain's senior advisers have themselves admitted that Palin was picked to ensure a strong conservative turnout in such decisive battleground states as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. She should also shore up traditionally Republican western states, including Colorado, which has shown signs of going Democratic. But if Palin draws too much attention to issues such as abortion, if the culture war heats up and comes to dominate discussion, there is a danger that she could weaken McCain's appeal not only to moderates within his own party but also to independents and conservative Democrats—in short, to the vast slice of American voters that decides national elections.