Does McCain Have the Religion Rhetoric Down?

In the speech that ended with his drop-out announcement, Mitt Romney warned the Conservative Political Action Committee: “Perhaps the most fundamental of the challenges that we face is the attack on America’s culture.”

And guess where that attack comes from? No surprises here: “The threat to our culture comes from within. In the 1960s, there were welfare programs that created a culture of poverty in our country.” After a brief moment of welfare-bashing, Romney hastened on to the next link in the conservatives’ chain of so-called historical reasoning: “The attack on faith and religion is no less relentless. And tolerance for pornography, even celebration of it, and sexual promiscuity, combined with the twisted incentives of government welfare, have led to today’s grim realities.”

But all this was just warm-up for the grimmest reality of all: “And finally, let’s consider the greatest challenge facing America, and for that matter facing the entire civilized world: the threat of radical, violent jihad.” Romney explained that he was quitting the race so that Republicans could rally around one candidate (obviously, McCain), insure victory in November, and thus save the nation from a Democratic president who would “retreat in the face of evil…surrender to terror…declare defeat.” Romney did not need to connect the dots explicitly. His right-wing audience surely did it for him: ’60s, promiscuity, multiculturalism, feminism, a woman against a black man for the Dem nomination, surrender to evil, defeated by terrorism—and all linked back to “the attack on faith and religion.”

Too bad Romney did not take the time to explain whether he sees a difference between “faith” and “religion,” or whether this was just repetition for emphasis. Then again, he was the candidate who would not discuss fine points of theology in public. But now that he’s gone from the presidential battle, the big question is whether John McCain will connect all these dots in the same way.

In his speech to the CPAC, McCain treated religion in a rather abstract way. He affirmed “the most basic of conservative principles: liberty is a right conferred by our Creator, not by governments.” He offered a few perfunctory nods to the Creator. But not much else. I confess I have not followed McCain’s campaign rhetoric closely. A friend who has tells me that in other speeches McCain, too, has been beating up on the right-wing bete noire, the “secular humanists” of the ’60s counterculture who live by the motto of “do your own thing.” So we may expect to see McCain present himself not only as the war hero who will save civilization by fighting terrorists around the world, but as the culture hero who will save faith and religion here at home too.

Wrapping God in the flag, especially in wartime, is a proven winner at the voting booth—except when American troops look like losers on the battlefield. Then there is the rhetorical risk of making God, too, look like a loser. Will McCain take that risk? Or will he count on God, a winner by definition, to shore up his claim that American troops in Iraq are also winning? It’s something to watch for.