At a meeting Tuesday in Denver, about 100 conservative Christian leaders from around the country agreed to unite behind the candidacy of John McCain, a politician they have long distrusted, marking the latest in a string of movements that bode well for McCain’s general election prospects among the Republican base.
“Collectively we feel that he will support and advance those moral values that we hold much greater than Obama, who in our view will decimate moral values,” said Mat Staver, the chairman of Liberty Counsel, a legal advocacy group, who previously supported Mike Huckabee’s candidacy.
“There are people who came through the primary with very mixed emotions of the candidate,” Staver continued, noting that many in the group had been in Denver to attend a separate meeting for pastors. “This event was to put those aside.”
The group included leaders like Phyllis Schlafly, the long-time leader of Eagle Forum; Steve Strang, the publisher of Charisma magazine; Phil Burress, a prominent Ohio marriage and anti-pornography activist; David Barton, the founder of WallBuilders and Donald Hodel, a former secretary of the Interior, who previously served on the board of Focus on the Family. Jim Dobson, the head of Focus and an outspoken critic of McCain, did not attend. The McCain campaign was also not directly represented at the meeting.
A second person who attended the event, but asked not to be named, said that the group was motivated principally by a desire to defeat Barack Obama. “None of these people want to meet their maker knowing that they didn’t do everything they could to keep Barack Obama from being president,” the participant said. “You’ve got these two people running for president. One of them is going to become president. That’s the perspective. That that’s the whole discussion.”
In recent weeks, the McCain campaign has been trying to spell out clear policy differences on social issues with the Obama campaign. Last week, McCain came out in favor of a constitutional amendment in California to outlaw gay marriage, which was legalized this spring by the state Supreme Court. Though McCain opposes an amendment to the federal constitution to ban gay marriage, he has previously supported similar state constitutional amendments.
More recently, McCain has said he wants to push for a Bush Administration proposal to allow faith-based organizations to make employment decisions based on religion even when using federal funding. Obama has said he supports applying state or local laws that prohibit hiring choices based on sexual orientation.
On a recent swing through Ohio, McCain met with a group of religious leaders and activists, including Burress, who has previously been critical of McCain’s lack of outreach to Christian conservatives. According to two participants at the Tuesday meeting in Denver, Burress spoke out strongly in favor of uniting behind McCain’s candidacy.
Staver said the McCain campaign was making progress but still had more work to do. “I think that the outreach to the community has to increase significantly,” he said. “There is a clear enthusiasm.”
UPDATE: The most detailed account of the meeting, from inside the room, can be found here, thanks to Steve Strang of Charisma magazine. And don’t miss this nugget:
More than an hour was spent listening to younger leaders tell the group that religious conservatives must be perceived “to care” about social issues and the environment to appeal to young people who are voting for the first time.
Burress said he grilled McCain on his beliefs and has decided to support him. After the McCain meeting Burress sent an e-mail to supporters that he read to the Denver group. The e-mail said in part: “I was once one of those people who said ‘no way’ to Sen. John McCain as President. No longer. The stakes are too high. And if Obama wins I need to be able to get up on November 5th, look at myself in the mirror, and when I pray, say, ‘Lord, I did all that I could.’”