Posted on March 06, 2000 in Washington Watch

Arizona Senator John McCain’s attack on the role of the religious right wing in today’s Republican Party may have been a defining moment in the 2000 presidential campaign.

Regardless of who wins the critical primary elections on March 7 and who goes on to win the Republican presidential nomination, the role of Pat Robertson and his brand of political/religious fundamentalism has now become an issue that will continue to be debated.

During the past two decades the infusion, by Robertson and company, of religious absolutism into politics has been damaging both to democratic debate and to the image of the Republican Party (GOP). This brand of politics has tainted the GOP as intolerant and mean spirited. It was the hard-edged politics of “us” vs. “them” that defined the short-lived “Gingrich” revolution. And it was the absolutism of this same group that pursued the impeachment of President Clinton to its bitter end.

Arab Americans long expressed deep concern with the religious rights’ domination over the Republican Party. It was the religious right that transformed the Republican approach to the Middle East from one that pursued U.S. interests in the region to one that grave primacy to Israel’s role.

The exotic theology of the Robertson groups has been destructive of reasoned debate, and is the principle reason why so many anti-Arab initiatives, today, emanate from within the GOP.

Not only have these fundamentalists been anti-Catholic–the charge leveled at them by Senator John McCain–they are also anti-Muslim and, in fact, anti any group who does not believe exactly as they do!

The Arab American Institute (AAI) has repeatedly called on both parties, but especially the Republicans, to disassociate themselves from Robertson and the fundamentalist far right. AAI has pointed out a number of Robertson’s bigoted anti-Muslim comments. For example, AAI noted that in October 1997 he decried the fact that some African Americans were converting to Islam. He said, “To see Americans become followers of, quote, Islam, is nothing short of insanity…. The Islamic people, the Arabs, were the ones who captured Africans…why would people in America want to embrace the religion of the slavers.” Robertson has also said:

    “The third most holy sight [in Islam] is a bit of a stretch of history. But there’s a great deal of stretching history in the Muslim psyche.” (7/22/94);

    “There is tremendous fatalism in Islam…You’ve got flies on your face, it’s the will of Allah.” (10/20/94); and

    “When I said during my presidential bid that I would only bring Christians and Jews into the government, I hit a firestorm…the media challenged me… ‘How dare you maintain that those who believe in the Judeo-Christian values are better qualified to govern America than Hindus and Muslims?’ My simple answer is, ‘Yes, they are.’” (From Robertson’s The New World Order, p. 218).


Despite their intolerance, the religious right rose to prominence in the Republican Party during the past few decades in large measure due to their strong national organization. By the beginning of the 1990s, the religious right was in control of the apparatus of almost one-third of the Republican Party.

Their support was important for Republican candidates to win. In turn, they required candidates to adopt their positions in order to get their endorsement. With the endorsement of this religious right came thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars–usually in the form of independent expenditures in support of their endorsed candidates. The problem, of course, for Republicans is that despite maintaining their strength and hold in the GOP, the popularity of the religious right has been diminishing amongst the majority of voters. So that while it is important to have the fundamentalists’ support to win a Republican nomination–their support and their positions could hurt a GOP candidate in a general election against a Democrat.

It was this concern with the domination of the religious right over Republican politics and the Republican coalition that spurred John McCain to act.

McCain’s first volley came in the aftermath of the South Carolina primary. He attributed his loss, in part, to phone calls made by Pat Robertson’s group charging his campaign with anti-Christian bigotry. The basis of this charge was apparently the fact that the national chairman of the McCain campaign had once denounced the religious right for their 1996 attacks on Colin Powell. (It is widely believed that it was the harshness of these attacks that caused Powell to reconsider running for President.)

McCain went further and used phone calls of his own to charge Bush with accepting the support of the fundamentalist right and their anti-Catholic agenda.

After charges and counter charges between the two campaigns, on February 28 McCain put all of his views together and delivered a major address calling for a new Republican coalition–freed from the hold of the intolerant leaders of the religious right. The intolerant right was responsible for recent Republican losses, according to McCain: “I blame them for setting a tone of exclusiveness and intolerance and bigotry which has caused us to lose elections, lose support and betray the entire message of the Republican Party.”

In his February 28 speech, McCain compared the intolerance of the far right with that of the far left and charged that Governor Bush was held hostage by the far right–this he said was a recipe for another Republican defeat. Said McCain, “My friends, I am a Reagan Republican who will defeat Al Gore. Unfortunately Governor Bush is a Pat Robertson Republican who will lose.”

The boldness of McCain’s move caught the attention of the media and forced the Bush campaign to seek to distance itself from some of the leaders, practices and actions of the religious right. It has also spurred a national debate over the proper role of religion in politics.

Unfortunately McCain, who is known for his glib comments, was not content to leave well enough alone. With Bush on the defensive and apologizing, McCain went further referring to Robertson and company as “forces of evil.”

This verbal excess, coupled with other recent examples of McCain’s lack of candor and restraint, have now put McCain on the defensive, forcing him to apologize for a few “flip” comments and some less than truthful claims.

At this point, it is not clear who has been hurt more by this entire set of developments. Bush, it appears, may be able to take advantage of McCain’s having “gone too far” and recapture the center ground by charging that it is McCain who is the negative candidate who is dividing the Republican Party. This and the continued support of the Republican establishment give Bush the edge to win the nomination. But McCain has identified an issue and a constituency that will not go away. The need for Republicans to shed the dominate role played by the intolerant religious right, in order to be able to attract moderate and independent voters, will continue to be debated long after the 2000 campaign.

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