The Republican Party is heading toward a spiritual smack down. In one corner are the party officials, waving the placards of pragmatic compromise. In the other corner are the conservative Christian leaders, holding high the cross of moral conviction. Their grudge match is over presidential candidate John McCain, who has received no endorsements from any significant Christian Right leader and downright opposition from the movement’s indisputable head: James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, whose radio audience reaches millions of listeners daily.

Dobson endorsed on Thursday former governor Mike Huckabee more as a way to slug McCain and stiff-arm elected Republican officials than conviction that the former Southern Baptist preacher from Arkansas can win.

In the second sentence of his endorsement statement of Huckabee, Dobson expressed unyielding opposition to McCain: “My decision comes in the wake of my statement on Super Tuesday that I could not vote for Sen. John McCain, even if he goes on to win the Republican nomination.”

Dobson’s defiant reason is clear: McCain’s “record on the institution of the family and other conservative issues makes his candidacy a matter of conscience and concern for me.”

Before voters in 24 states went to the polls last Tuesday, Dobson fired a warning shot at Republicans, expressing his deep disappointment that the party was about to select McCain, “who did not support a Constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage, voted for embryonic stem-cell research to kill nascent human beings, opposed tax cuts that ended the marriage penalty, has little regard for freedom of speech, organized the Gang of 14 to preserve filibusters in judicial hearings, and has a legendary temper and often uses foul and obscene language.”

He accused McCain of sticking his thumb in the eyes of real conservatives and declared that as a matter of conviction that he would sit out the general election if McCain is the party’s nominee.

Surely no conservative Christian clergyman and no Christian Right leader will now support McCain. If any dare to do so, they will be banished from the church council of leadership.

Dobson’s definitive position came on the back of Huckabee’s methodical enlistment of endorsements from Christian Right leaders, something McCain was apparently loath to do.

Three Southern Baptist Convention presidents, the president of a Southern Baptist seminary in North Carolina, the founder of Charisma Magazine, the dean of the Liberty University law school, popular conservative Christian authors, TV preachers and mega-church leaders have ordained Huckabee as the divine choice.

TV evangelist Pat Robertson, who had earlier endorsed former candidate Rudy Giuliani, said on Fox News radio Thursday morning that he would not support McCain, referring to McCain as a “capped live volcano” and saying that “you never know when he’s going to explode.”

A review of McCain’s Web site endorsement page disclosed support from current and former elected officeholders, government officials and business leaders. Missing were clergy and Christian Right leaders.

Conventional wisdom contends that if the Democratic Party nominates presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, then the Republican Party will unite in opposition to her. But that scenario collapses without the enthusiastic support of the chaplains of the Christian army. The Republican Party’s nomination of McCain will solidify the Christian Right’s opposition to him.

McCain will need a miracle to get the Christian Right to cross the Jordan River in his quest to occupy the promised land of the White House. Without these faithful pilgrims, the Republican Party may well wander in the wilderness for another metaphorical 40 years.

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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