McCain slams leaders of the religious right

Robertson, Falwell portrayed as divisive `empire builders'

February 29, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Taking his presidential campaign to a stronghold of Christian conservatism, Sen. John McCain of Arizona delivered a harsh attack yesterday on the "self-appointed leaders" of the religious right, depicting them as intolerant empire builders who "have turned good causes into businesses" while attempting to exclude all but "card-carrying Republicans" from the party.

McCain singled out for criticism two of the Christian right's best-known leaders, Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, and the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority. Both are based in Virginia.

McCain compared Robertson to "union bosses who have subordinated the interests of working families to their own ambitions," and he accused both men of attempting to distort his position on abortion and "smear the reputations of my supporters."

"The politics of division and slander are not our values," McCain said during a somber address to about 4,000 people who packed a high school gymnasium here 30 miles from the headquarters of the Christian Coalition. "They are corrupting influences on religion and politics and those who practice them in the name of religion or in the name of the Republican Party or in the name of America shame our faith, our party and our country."

McCain's remarks came on the eve of another primary day against Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, with the fight increasingly focused on the appeals Bush made to religious conservatives in winning the South Carolina primary. And while McCain's statements yesterday may cost him votes among the religious right in Virginia, whose contest is one of three to be held today, his aides were counting on media coverage to attract more moderate voters in New York, Ohio and California who vote March 7 and are more crucial to McCain's strategy.

Campaigning in Washington state yesterday, Bush dismissed McCain's remarks. "This is a political game that Senator McCain is trying to play by pitting one group of people against another," he said

"I'm a problem-solver," he added. "It sounds like he's a finger-pointer."

Robertson could not be reached for comment, but the Christian Coalition released a statement saying, "Christian Coalition will rise above this transparent effort to divide one American from another on the basis of religion. Our pro-family message of faith and freedom will draw citizens to the polls in record numbers as we encourage all people of faith to continue their active involvement in the process we call Democracy."

A spokeswoman for Falwell said he would have no comment. During his address, and again with reporters, McCain repeatedly framed his speech not as an attack on the Christian right, but as an appeal to religious conservatives to join him in condemning tactics pursued by Robertson and Falwell on behalf of Bush.

As he has for weeks, McCain accused Robertson yesterday of slandering his national campaign co-chairman, former Vermont Sen. Warren B. Rudman, in telephone calls to voters, by calling him a "vicious bigot" for criticisms he had made of the religious right. McCain also suggested that leaders of the religious right may have been behind other calls and e-mails to voters accusing him of fathering children out of wedlock and pointing out that he and his wife, Cindy, have adopted a girl from Bangladesh.

"Neither party," he added, "should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell on the right.

"Political intolerance by any political party is neither a Judeo-Christian nor an American value," he said.

On his campaign bus, he told reporters, "Before South Carolina, I don't think I would have given a speech like this."

McCain's aides said the speech was partly intended to re-emphasize Bush's avid support from Christian conservatives one day after he expressed regret, in a letter to Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, for an address he gave at Bob Jones University, a bastion of the religious right in South Carolina whose leaders have spoken harshly of Catholics and banned interracial dating.

McCain referred to Bush in his speech as a "Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore," and later, his press aides distributed a packet of campaign materials and news reports that they said showed numerous links between Bush's campaign and top officials at Bob Jones University. One Bush flier quoted Bob Taylor, a dean at Bob Jones University, praising Bush for his "pro-family leadership."

More broadly, McCain described his speech as part of an effort to redefine the Republican Party, to move it closer to the center, much as President Clinton tried to do to the Democratic Party during his 1992 campaign.

"We are the party of Ronald Reagan, not Pat Robertson," McCain said in his speech. "We are the party of Theodore Roosevelt, not the party of special interests. We are the party of Abraham Lincoln, not Bob Jones. Join us. Join us."

As he concluded, the crowd -- half of which were high school students -- stood and applauded enthusiastically.

Bush scoffed at the senator's claims: "Ronald Reagan didn't point fingers. He never played to people's religious fears, as Senator McCain has shamelessly done."

In California, Leslie Goodman, a Republican political consultant in Sacramento who backs Bush, said of McCain: "Truly, the prince of candor has turned into the king of media pander. But what he is really doing is confirming to rank-and-file Republicans that he's at war with everybody."

"It's not just a major moment in this campaign, it's a major moment for social conservatives," said Marshall Wittman, a former legislative director for the Christian Coalition who advises McCain.

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