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McCain's Christian-Right Sop

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It was nice to see Bristol and Levi sitting together looking happy at the Republican convention.

Only Nixon could go to China. Maybe only the Republican/Religious Right can dispel the Christian-based shame of unwed teenage pregnancy. I've been telling evangelicals that if they're serious about stopping abortions, they ought to honor unmarried women who choose to have their babies. Maybe this is a first step.

If so, it's a great thing.

Sarah Palin herself is sending a strange message with her continuing insistence on abstinence-only sex education. It clearly didn't work with her family. A lot of women are angry about that message and panicked over the enthusiasm Palin seems to be inspiring.

Let me offer four reasons to calm down:

1. The Religious Right vote is not and never has been as strong as the media have made it seem. The 25 percent of Americans who call themselves evangelical have always been a more diverse group than pollsters acknowledge. And they are now more fractured than ever.

When it comes time to vote, they and the rest of America are very likely to vote their pocketbooks, which are far emptier than they were eight years ago. Courting the most fundamentalist of them, as McCain has been forced to could easily backfire, especially among the majority of evangelicals who aren't controlled by the Religious Right.

2. We are seeing great enthusiasm for Palin from fundamentalist Christians but voters should be wary of such reporting because mainstream reporters generally cover the usual suspects. These putative leaders command a minority of evangelical voters. Only 20 percent of self-identified evangelicals say they are supporters of the Religious Right. Surveys show that only a small percentage of them even know the names of the leaders who are so often quoted by media.

3. When that traditional white male voter whom Obama supporters fear for his racism goes into the voting booth, he will now have a difficult choice. His racism and opposition to abortion rights will be pitted against his sexism and patriotism. Is racism stronger than sexism? Hard to say. Patriotism, however, is a dominant value among the 17-20 percent of Americans who call themselves evangelicals but don't believe or act like evangelicals. That traditional white male voter will be asking himself if he wants to elect a 72-year-old cancer survivor as president and risk that McCain will die leaving a young, untested woman to be president during a time of war.

4. McCain must play to the Religious Right inside the Republican Party because they have so much strength inside the party. In the election, he's likely to sideline Palin just as Dan Quayle was sidelined. She'll preach to the Religious Right choir, while he courts everyone else. We see that strategy already in Cindy McCain's announcement that she doesn't agree with Palin on abortion.

The Religious Right is energized now, which is good for McCain. But even if they can deliver the election, he'll sell them out. Just as he had no choice at the convention, he'll have no choice as president.

Christine Wicker is the author of "The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church." Her website is www.christinewicker.com