Has the McCain-Palin Ticket Energized Enough Conservative Evangelicals?

( [email protected] ) Sep 04, 2008 04:18 AM EDT

LINO LAKES, Minn. (AP) - The message from the pulpit was "Wine, Water and Worship" — with no mention of the other "W," George W. Bush.

At Eagle Brook Church, Minnesota's largest evangelical Christian congregation, there was zero talk of politics on the eve of the Republican National Convention. Church pastors politely declined an invitation to a GOP prayer breakfast this week.

When prodded, many Eagle Brook members confessed to apathy about the presidential candidates.

"I'm just not pleased with our choices," said Deb Holt, 50, an undecided voter who says her top voting issues are eliminating hunger and abortion. "... Hillary, Obama and the other one." She meant John McCain.

Conservative Christian activists on hand for the GOP convention in nearby St. Paul are suddenly energized about McCain's campaign, thanks to the addition of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to the ticket, McCain's recent performance at megachurch pastor Rick Warren's candidate forum and to the party's new, tougher platform on abortion and gay marriage.

The looming challenge for Republicans is building the same enthusiasm in "values voters" that fill evangelical churches each week — people like Deb Holt, who volunteers at Eagle Brook Church answering phones and helping at baptisms.

Among those waiting in line Sunday at the church's Starbucks-knockoff coffee shop, or picking up their children from the game room, there was excitement about John McCain's surprise choice of Palin, but there also were a lot of undecided voters.

Four years ago, Republicans built a formidable get-out-the-vote machine that relied on white evangelicals, a large and loyal voting bloc. But things have changed in the evangelical community: While abortion remains a fundamental issue, a new generation of leaders is giving more attention to such problems as global warming and poverty.

Still other churches are shunning political engagement altogether, wary of dividing congregations that — despite public perceptions of megachurches as homogeneous — contain a range of party affiliations and beliefs.

"It's not that we don't want people to be engaged," said Tyler Gregory, Eagle Brook Church's executive director of ministry. "But we try to stay out of the political. We find it divides people rather than bringing people together."

The church recently asked members to avoid divisive political talk in small group meetings.

"We focus on helping people become more like Christ — not more like any of the candidates," Gregory said.

Most evangelical churches take a similar hands-off approach to politics, said Leith Anderson, senior pastor at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minn., who is also the president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

"There are a few churches that have promoted politics, and somehow they have gotten notoriety that is far from the norm that I know," said Anderson, who bans voter guides from being distributed at his church and employs a team of volunteers to remove any political fliers left on windshields during services.

Like many megachurches that target "spiritual seekers," Eagle Brook evokes less church than comfortable theater, with stadium seats in the auditorium, rock club-quality sound and all manner of child care.

Upstairs in a "parent-child room," a nursing mother watched the 11 a.m. service with a baby-changing table nearby and Winnie the Pooh toys at her feet. After Bible study, older kids played foosball and air hockey at Club K Rock.

Public opinion polls that show McCain winning more than seven in 10 white evangelical voters but not generating much excitement. McCain's choice of Palin provides at least anecdotal evidence that's changing.

Palin, an abortion foe, is scheduled to appear Tuesday at a reception of the Republican National Coalition for Life. The fact that she was invited to speak months ago helps explain the conservative excitement over the choice.

"I'm a strong conservative, and McCain doesn't fit that for me," said Stacey Barnett, a member of Eagle Brook, which is affiliated with the Baptist General Conference. "But his running mate gives me hope for real change, not artificial change. McCain is accused of having too many houses. She's a mother of five, and her husband works the oil fields."

Others seized on Palin's conservative evangelical Christian faith. She was reared in a Pentecostal church, still attends one occasionally and regularly attends a nondenominational church.

"To a certain degree, it legitimizes her in my mind," said Arlin Brown, who works in information technology. "Not to say one Christian faith is better than another. But it helps me think she doesn't just present her faith for political purposes. It's genuine."

In St. Paul, the McCain-Palin campaign is working to win over evangelical voters, dispatching surrogates like former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, a well-known evangelical Christian, to chat up delegates, and staging meetings with activists.

"There's more excitement than there's been in a long time," said Kelly Shackelford, a conservative Christian activist, Texas delegate and member of the GOP platform committee. "Talk is cheap in politics. We didn't want McCain to say nice things to us. We wanted him to do something. And he has."

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