WASHINGTON _In Christianity, forgiveness and reconciliation are part of the path to redemption. In politics, they can pave the way to winning elections.
Six years after he verbally attacked two prominent leaders of the religious right, charging that they'd helped to kill his presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain is making up with one of them and hoping that Christian conservatives will help him win the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.
The Arizona senator will give the commencement address Saturday at Liberty University, the Christian school in Lynchburg, Va., headed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a fundamentalist Baptist. McCain called Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson intolerant and "evil" in 2000 after blaming them for a smear campaign against him.
The truce could benefit both: It can help McCain reach evangelical Christians, an influential bloc in his party, and it might revive the 72-year-old Falwell's influence a quarter-century after his Moral Majority movement helped propel Ronald Reagan into the White House. While younger televangelists now dominate the airwaves, Falwell maintains an extensive political network capped by an e-mail list of 5 million families.
"It's a smart political move," said Marshall Wittmann, a former McCain aide who also once worked for the Christian Coalition, another political-action group of religious conservatives. "Social conservatives are going to be a critical constituency in 2008. This is a very important opportunity to reach out to them."
It also carries risks. As McCain reaches right, he could alienate potential supporters farther left, including independents, who might not have known, or believed, that the senator is a social conservative. Some students and faculty at New School University in New York, for example, started protesting McCain's scheduled May 19 commencement address there after learning of his appearance at Liberty.
McCain called analysis of his motives in visiting Falwell's school "part of political life" and said it was simply the right thing for him to speak to young people, at Liberty and elsewhere. As for his host, McCain said this week on CBS, "Reverend Falwell and I have put our differences behind us."
In an interview, Falwell all but pronounced McCain acceptable to Christian conservatives.
"We agree on matters related to life and family," Falwell said.
He visited McCain last September to heal their rift and invite him to speak at this year's commencement.
"I believe Senator McCain—being a military hero, being a statesman and perhaps having a possibility of one day being a president—has something that our students need to hear," Falwell said. "Five minutes was spent on yesterday and two hours on the future. We got that behind us quickly. We agree on far more things than we disagree about."
He said they agreed on what he called the two most pressing issues to social conservatives: opposing abortion and gay marriage. He said they disagreed over how to combat gay marriage: Falwell supports a federal constitutional amendment, while McCain prefers to ban it at the state level. But he applauded McCain's commitment to support a federal amendment if courts throw out state bans.
He also said they disagreed on issues such as gun control and global warming, but added: "Those are not deal breakers. Faith and family are. And we're together on them."
He said McCain didn't ask for an endorsement in the 2008 race and that he wouldn't endorse a candidate during the primaries. But he won't oppose McCain in primaries this time, as he did in 2000 in favor of George W. Bush. And he said McCain had a good chance of winning broad support from Christian conservatives.
"I believe he can—with the right approach—get their energetic support," Falwell said. "And I think yesterday can be quickly forgotten."
If McCain does win the Republican nomination, he said, "he deserves to have my unswerving support."
Wittmann, an informal McCain adviser in 2000, said the senator and Falwell never were that far apart.
"The difference wasn't over social issues, it was over campaign-finance reform. And the irony is that President Bush signed campaign-finance reform into law," Wittmann said. Many conservative groups thought McCain's campaign-finance bill improperly limited their right to influence elections.
McCain blamed Robertson and his former aide Ralph Reed more than Falwell for a whisper campaign that smeared the senator in the 2000 South Carolina primary, Wittmann said.
"It was Pat Robertson," he said. "There was never any great acrimony between Senator McCain and Jerry Falwell."
Robertson declined to be interviewed.
For more on Liberty University online, go to www.liberty.edu
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): McCain, Falwell
ARCHIVE GRAPHICS on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050330 Falwell bio, 20040827 CVN GOP McCain
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