I am beginning to feel a little sorry for Sen. John McCain. He’s done everything he is supposed to do. He beat out a large contingent of Republican presidential hopefuls fairly early allowing him to occupy the enviable position of presumptive Republican nominee for president for three months now. He’s been scurrying about trying to rally the party behind him and all the other things the presumptive nominee does leading up to the Republican National Convention in September.

There’s just one problem. McCain is having trouble with the Religious Right. Maybe it’s because in the 2000 race for president he called Jerry Falwell and other fundamentalists “agents of intolerance.” Of course, he’s making nice now, even embracing Falwell before his death last year. But for some reason he can’t quite pull them in.

James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, absolutely refuses to endorse McCain. He has encouraged his constituency to certainly vote in November and intimated he would not be voting for a Democrat. However, not voting for the Democrats is a long way from endorsing the Republican candidate.

McCain actually hurts himself with this group with his unwillingness to talk about his own faith. Ironically this is the one area where he does not need to run away from President Bush. The war in Iraq and the tanking economy are toxic, but McCain could learn from Bush the art of speaking Christian.

When asked in the 2000 campaign who was his most influential political philosopher, Mr. Bush answered without hesitation, “Jesus, because he changed my life.” My guess is the 29 percent of the people in America who continue to approve of Mr. Bush’s performance as president are the ones who stood up and shouted “amen,” when he said this.

But McCain either won’t or doesn’t know how to say this with any convincing warmth, and it is hurting him.

Making matters worse, since he can’t get any of the big dogs of the Religious Right to endorse him, leaders like Dobson or Richard Land of Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, McCain has been forced to take the field with the second team.

First it was John Hagee. With his 16,000 member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio and a significant television following, Hagee is no small fry, but he’s no Falwell or Dobson either.

McCain’s other major religious endorser, Rod Parsley, pastor of the Harvest Church in Columbus, Ohio, is another lesser light among the Religious Right luminaries. He’s well known among the 29 percent crowd, but certainly not a household name like Pat Robertson.

All of this is complicated by some of the weird ideas these guys hold. For instance, McCain rejected Hagee’s endorsement after it came to light that the preacher believes the Holocaust was God’s way of facilitating European Jews relocation to Israel. Parsley, for his part, believes all Muslims want to kill you.

It’s really hard to run for president of all America when your religious team is stranger than strange.

McCain’s use of these replacement players is an indication of the tepid response he is getting from the Christian Right. It remains to be seen whether this particular team will have enough clout to bring in the faithful. And they may do more harm than good. If these new agents of intolerance begin to wear down the good will of the rest of the Republican faithful, McCain may find himself facing a losing season.

James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.

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