In presidential campaigns, a candidate sometimes drops a political bomb in one speech. John McCain did that this week by attacking a few leaders of the religious right.
He didn't attack the religious right itself, a point somehow lost in the media aftershock. Rather, Mr. McCain criticized those "self-appointed" leaders of the movement who, he said, put political influence and ambition ahead of the interests of their members. And he lumped them together with other "special interest" players such as union bosses, corporate lobbies, and divisive leftists.
A perception that McCain was attacking the entire religious right, however, may help explain why he lost many Republican votes in three state contests on Tuesday. His strategy of defining a Republican Party free of "special-interest money or empire or ego" will face an even bigger test in the "Super Tuesday" primaries on March 7.
McCain walks a risky line by bringing religion into this race even more than it already is. He's not alone. Al Gore and George W. Bush have played up their faith as central to their political approaches.
Mr. Bush, in particular, set off his own political bomb by speaking at ultraconservative Bob Jones University before South Carolina's primary. He now admits the mistake of appearing to endorse the school's anti-Catholicism and its racial views.
Almost every politician these days must deal with the well-organized religious right, which has played a pivotal role in American political discourse for two decades. It has raised useful moral issues, such as a need for stronger family values.
But a few of its leaders have also learned how to play hard-ball with candidates who don't "pander" to them, as McCain said.
Even if he loses, McCain may have done the nation a service by trying to separate politicized religious leaders "who turn good causes into businesses" from the underlying values of the movement. The nation's faithful, he says, don't need such leaders to bring many of their social-conservative values into government.
But both Bush and McCain should beware of using the issue of religion's role in the affairs of state as a campaign tool. It's better to leave it to voters to perceive which candidate is living his faith and which is just catering to the faithful.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society