By Jim Heath
I was a young Republican county chairman in Arizona. In fact, I was the youngest GOP county chair in the country. I was only 22, but had been politically active for a decade, working locally on the campaigns of Ronald Reagan, George Bush and John McCain.
In January, 1989, I was emceeing a Lincoln Day Dinner in Lake Havasu City, and seated between McCain and his wife Cindy. It was a brilliant evening, as the nation prepared to transition from the Reagan to the Bush era.
Christian Nation Resolution
There was one thing, however, that was very much troubling both McCain and I. A controversial resolution had been approved at a recent state GOP meeting that proclaimed America a “Christian Nation.” The resolution had been opposed by party leadership, but had passed on a voice vote late in the afternoon when most delegates had left.
For me, a young Republican inspired by the optimism and big tent approach of Reagan, it was atrocious. Why would any political party want to exclude a variety of religions and alienate them? Remember, the GOP had just won two blowout elections in a row in 1984 and 1988. We were the “big tent” party, and why would we, all of a sudden, begin to proclaim absolutes?
The founding fathers of America’s government, many of whom were not Christian (including Thomas Jefferson, who actually took the bible, ripped it apart, and created his own version of it) were very clear in stating that America was a nation that accepted all religious beliefs.
That night McCain learned that I would be leading the effort on the state GOP executive committee to overturn the resolution, but I was already getting some flack from evangelicals and the press.
“I’ll take care of it,” McCain said in his matter-of-fact tone. “I’ll give you some cover.”
A few minutes later, during his speech, McCain brought it up, knowing the Arizona Republic and local newspapers were there.
“The Christian nation issue is one which I think is stupid and unfortunate, and one which has alienated a lot of voters,” McCain told the audience of about 150. “The job of our party is to attract voters. I hope they reverse or modify it, and I know it does not reflect the views of any elected Republican leader I know.”
Just like that, McCain had thrown down the gauntlet. He was the in-fact leader of the state GOP. The “establishment” (if that’s what we were) was still in control, and his statement that night made it a lot easier for me to spearhead the effort to overturn it.
Which is exactly what I did.
This wasn’t the first time that the growing split between factions on religious issues had revealed itself within the GOP. But the fact that a small group had managed to make if the official position of the state party was news across the state.
It was certainly a signal to what was going to happen in the Republican Party in the years ahead.
Even the editorial boards of my two local papers took different positions on it.
Not much debate
On the executive committee of the state GOP at that time were some level headed people, from all over the state, who recognized a “big tent” party needed to welcome everybody. I proposed at the beginning of the meeting that we officially overturn the resolution and move on.
A statement had been drafted which denounced anyone who promoted “racism, anti-Semitism, or religious intolerance” and stated firmly the GOP would continue its “vigorous efforts to prevent discrimination based on sex, race, creed, religion or national origin.”
When the vote came, thanks to the position of McCain, it was overwhelming approved.
Not the end of the story
Fast forward 18 years to 2007, when John McCain was locked in a battle for the GOP nomination for president.
Evangelicals now dominated the grassroots of the Republican Party. It was impossible to be the nominee without them. In fact, McCain’s leading challenger, Mike Huckabee, had come out of nowhere based solely on his support from the right.
While traveling around New Hampshire, just a couple months before the primary, McCain was asked about religion. He pointed to a recent poll that found 55 percent of Americans believed the U.S. Constitution establishes a Christian nation.
“I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation,” he said.
His remark immediately hit the AP wire.
What? I couldn’t believe it.
My mind immediately flashed back to 1989, and how McCain had condemned all talk of a Christian nation.
In 2000, I had left politics behind and re-registered as an Independent as I began my broadcast journalism career. Seven years later, I was the primary anchor at the ABC affiliate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and was busy covering McCain and the other candidates.
When McCain returned to South Carolina, I headed to an event where I could ask him about it. I showed him the article from 1989, and he was clearly not amused.
“What I meant to say was America was founded on Judeo-Christian values, which is basically the rights of human dignity and human rights,” he said. “I believe that anyone can be president of the United States of any faith.”
With the criticism he was taking from moderates, and the mistrust from social conservatives, McCain was irritated that his remarks on religion were being so widely discussed. I reported on it, but the economy was tanking, and there was an unpopular war in Iraq, and this story was just a blip.
Still, I was a bit stunned on how far the GOP had moved to the right, and how it had taken John McCain with it.
A month later I was back onboard McCain’s campaign bus traveling from Charleston to Pawley’s Island. If McCain had been angry about me bringing up our battle against the Christian nation resolution nearly twenty years earlier, he didn’t show it.
In fact, he told a couple national reporters how we had known each other since the 1980’s. I always thought my presence in South Carolina was a reminder for him of home.
When we arrived in Pawley’s Island, McCain got off the bus, started walking and did a double take. My parents had flown in from Arizona to cheer him on during a presidential debate. “Doris?” said McCain looking at my mom. “Hello John!” And he walked over and gave her a big hug.
It was an absolutely priceless moment we will never forget.