Nation & World

Will Sarah Palin's faith deliver Missouri to McCain? Maybe

In so many ways Kathey Webster of Blue Springs, Mo., is like Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee.

Both women are in their 40s and steeped in their Pentecostal faith. They’re against gay marriage and legalized abortion. Both are working mothers.

In 2000 and 2004, when Webster, who works at her Assembly of God church, went to the polls, she sought divine inspiration.

"I have to pray before I go,” she said. "I prayed all the way there, and I prayed the night before. I prayed to God to help me with the decision. I want who God wants in the White House.”

She said God twice told her to vote for George W. Bush.

But come November, the Democrat will already know her choice: Barack Obama. But not because, like her, he’s African-American.

"Honestly,” she said, “I thought Sarah Palin being chosen as (John) McCain's running mate was really a desperation cry. I think enough damage has been done to the United States — economically, its psyche, its whole spirit.”

Think of it as the Palin polemic.

It is the question, now being hotly debated in battleground states such as Missouri, as to exactly how much of an effect Palin's conservative Christian faith could have on the results of a presidential election that is all-but-guaranteed to be close and is now just seven weeks away.

"Of course it’s going to be a factor," said Mark A. Noll, a professor of history at Notre Dame University and author of God and Race in American Politics: A Short History, of political candidates’ religious beliefs. "But no one knows how much."

In Independence, for example, a Kansas City suburb, Vinnie Gonzalez is a Pentecostal and Republican. Gonzalez nonetheless calls Bush a "knucklehead" and said he was "ashamed" to have voted for him in previous elections. This year he had no intention of voting for McCain, a senator from Arizona.

But then Palin arrived on the scene.

"I thought if he picked Sarah Palin," Gonzalez said, "maybe I was wrong about McCain and had to take a second look."

Because Palin shares Gonzalez's conservative Christian views and because her husband, like him, is a union worker, he now plans to vote for McCain.

"She’s a fireball, a go-getter," said Gonzalez, a member of the United Auto Workers.

Since John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president, religious faith has come to play an ever-larger role in American presidential politics. It was perhaps no more influential, scholars argue, than in 2000 and 2004, when support from millions of conservative Catholics and evangelical Christians helped propel Bush into the White House.

In those elections the faith issue surrounded a presidential candidate, but this time it focuses on a vice presidential nominee. Scholars such as Noll argue that voters rarely decide a presidential election based on the vice presidential candidate. The top-of-the-ticket candidates and their stances are what usually guide voters.

"This is an election between Obama and McCain," Noll said.

Given other important issues, from the economy to the war in Iraq to the price of gasoline, Noll said, "I think the Palin buzz will fade."

He and others nonetheless acknowledged that Palin’s conservative Christianity could be enough to tilt the race to the Republican side in battleground states such as Ohio, Virginia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and particularly in Missouri, home to the international headquarters of two prominent Pentecostal churches: the Assemblies of God (USA) in Springfield and the Pentecostal Church of God International in Joplin.

"I think it can work in Missouri," Ken Warren, a professor of political science and presidential politics at St. Louis University, said of Palin's presence on the Republican ticket. "The reason (Democratic presidential candidate John) Kerry pulled out of Missouri in 2004 is that the Christian right was thought to be just too hard of a nut to crack in the state."

Christian conservatism has grown in Missouri in recent years, particularly in rural areas, he said.

Before McCain chose Palin, his support among conservative and evangelical Christians was extremely low. Conservatives from Rush Limbaugh to James Dobson, the evangelical leader of Focus on the Family, decried McCain for what they called his weak brand of fiscal and social conservatism.

"I cannot and I will not vote for Senator John McCain as a matter of conscience," Dobson said in a radio address on Super Tuesday last February.

But after McCain put Palin on the ticket, Dobson told a more recent radio audience, "I will pull that lever" for McCain-Palin.

Palin also has received the enthusiastic support of the evangelical Christian Coalition, whose founder, Pat Robertson, originally endorsed former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani over McCain.

The group applauded McCain's choice of Palin. It says it has received increased demand for voting guides and requests to organize voting-registration drives at churches nationwide. "We have heard from our flock," said coalition spokeswoman Michele Combs. "What we're seeing is a whole movement. After we got back from the (Republican national) convention, it's been this tidal wave."

In polls, McCain has consistently led Obama among white registered voters who describe themselves as weekly churchgoers. Obama, a senator from Illinois, leads by overwhelming margins among black and Hispanic voters, although McCain is gaining a few points among both groups. Some attribute the rise to Palin.

"There is an evangelical aspect to the Latino vote," said George Connor, chairman of the department of political science at Missouri State University in Springfield.

Connor saw McCain's choice of Palin in pragmatic terms.

"It’s marketing," he said. "If you think about McCain in the (Missouri) primaries, McCain lost to (Mitt) Romney and (Mike) Huckabee. He was roundly defeated by Huckabee in southwest Missouri and the rest of outer Missouri because he was perceived as being not conservative enough, especially among evangelicals. This is the buckle of the Bible Belt."

Palin, he said, gave some Christian conservatives a reason to overcome their reluctance to back McCain.

"Most of those really hard-core social conservatives were probably going to vote for him anyway in an anti-Obama way rather than a pro-McCain way," Connor said. "With Palin, they are going to vote for McCain happier now. By picking Palin, he has turned up that intensity for that block of Republican voters. The intensity will increase the numbers."

Among them will be an 18-year-old first-time voter named Chelsea from Merriam.

"I've always kind of paid attention to politics," said Chelsea, a Pentecostal and a member of a Christian youth group, who asked that her last name not be used. "But to be honest, I wasn't sure I was going to vote before Sarah Palin was recruited."

McCain, she said, didn't seem conservative enough to her. But now she plans to cast her vote for him in November.

The Palin choice also could create a backlash, Connor said, from moderate conservatives who initially were attracted to McCain for what seemed to be his centrist views.

Palin has stated her support for teaching anti-evolution creationism, what others call "intelligent design," as part of the science curriculum in public schools. She supports abortion only if the mother’s health is in jeopardy, but not in the case of incest or rape.

"McCain's attraction, without Palin, is that he is a maverick — a bit of a centrist," Connor said. "The downside of having Palin is the signal that he is moving to the right. His maverickness is diminished."

For Michelle Lewis, 27, of Kansas City, whose voice mail is answered by a gospel hymn and who encourages callers to "Bless the Lord at all times," the inclusion of Palin on the Republican ticket does not alter her mind.

An employee at a Pentecostal church, Lewis said that both her faith and other issues were deeply important to her. She has decided to cast her vote for the presidential candidate she considers a strong Christian.

"I am supporting Barack," she said.