"Obviously, I find these remarks and others deeply offensive and indefensible, and I repudiate them. I did not know of them before Rev. Hagee's endorsement, and I feel I must reject his endorsement as well."
Hagee tried to beat McCain to the punch by withdrawing his endorsement. If McCain had simply waited a few hours, he could have graciously accepted Hagee's withdrawal, thus accomplishing the same thing but softening its impact on Evangelical voters. Interestingly enough, Hagee's former critic, Bill Donohue, immediately issued a statement defending Hagee against the ridiculous charge of anti-Semitism:
One week ago today, I met with Pastor Hagee in my office. I found him to be sincere, apologetic, and friendly. I also found him to be the strongest Christian defender of Israel I have ever met, and that is why attempts to portray him as anything but a genuine friend to Jews -- one for whom the Holocaust is the horror of horrors -- is despicable.
Controversial statements from leaders of the Religious Right are not new -- Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson all committed their share. Never before, however, has the leader of the Republican Party made such a point of distancing himself and the party. McCain's rejection of the endorsements, added to his already well-known reticence toward religious activists, places a marker in the political landscape that will last into November and beyond.
There will surely be those who applaud McCain for distancing himself from the "fanatics" on the Religious Right. They will argue that McCain will gain moderate support as a result. Maybe so, but much more important is the message this sends to the religiously conservative voters who have given the GOP its winning edge for nearly 30 years.
Ronald Reagan won Evangelical support with a now-famous line at a 1980 National Affairs Briefing held in Dallas: "I understand that you can't endorse me, but I'm here to endorse you." Some historians point to this moment as the official beginning of the Religious Right movement.
(Column continues below)
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The unanswered question raised by McCain's words on May 22 is whether he will be viewed by Evangelicals as explicitly reversing Reagan's endorsement. How many Evangelical voters will feel rejected along with Reverend Hagee?
Within the past two months, McCain has unintentionally aggravated both Evangelicals and Catholics. Both groups had already responded to the McCain nomination with skepticism: Catholics because of McCain's position on embryonic stem cells, Evangelicals because of his blistering attack on Falwell and Robertson after the 2000 South Carolina primary.
As things stand, I believe Catholics are still in play for McCain, if his campaign conducts a vigorous outreach. L'Affaire Hagee will be harder for his campaign to overcome with Evangelicals without significantly ramping up their relationship with grassroots leaders.