Evangelical Leader Warns McCain On VP Pick

Richard Land, public policy chief for the Southern Baptist Convention, responds during an interview in Nashville, Tenn. in this Sept. 28, 2006, file photo.
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
Political Players is a regular conversation with the leaders, consultants, and activists who shape American politics. This week, CBS News' Brian Goldsmith talked with one of the nation's key evangelical leaders, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission about John McCain's campaign and his upcoming vice presidential selection.

CBSNews.com: You've not always been the biggest McCain fan. Has he done a good job in this campaign reaching out to you, and reaching out to the Southern Baptists you represent?

Richard Land: Well, I don't endorse candidates. And so, girls who don't dance don't get invited to as many dances. I have not been the main object of Senator McCain's attention because he knows I don't endorse candidates. It's my understanding that he has been reaching out to people that are considered opinion makers in the evangelical and the conservative Catholic world. I've had some contacts with the campaign. They have called me and asked me questions from time to time. And I have met with the senator a couple of times.

I think he's done a pretty good job. I think that the speech that he gave at Wake Forest on judges was a very helpful one--in which he reiterated that he was looking at Alito and Roberts as the kind of judges that he would appoint to be confirmed.

CBSNews.com: As head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptists, which is the biggest Protestant denomination in this country, do you think McCain has opened up enough about his personal faith?

Richard Land: Look it's obvious that McCain is not as comfortable talking about these issues about President Bush was, or as Barack Obama is. But that is not the prime concern of the Southern Baptists that I know.

They're more concerned about where he is on the issues that matter most to them, issues like the sanctity of human life, the traditional family, and religious freedom. And there was a poll done by our research arm in June, and eighty percent of Southern Baptist pastors said they were planning on voting on John McCain. One percent were planning on voting for Obama. And the rest were undecided.

CBSNews.com: A number of evangelicals and leaders of what used to be called the religious right have said that what they're really looking for--to determine whether they hold they nose when they vote for McCain, or whether they go in enthusiastically and bring their friends--is the person he chooses to be his running mate. What are you and the people you represent looking for in that running mate?

Richard Land: First of all, I agree with that assessment. I think that the vice presidential choice that John McCain makes is probably the most important choice he's going to make in this entire campaign. Because he has no room for error, no margin for doubt. If he picks a pro-choice running mate, it will confirm the unease and the mistrust that some evangelicals--and don't forget this, social conservative Catholics--feel about McCain.

If he picks a pro-life running mate, it will help to ease their concerns and confirm to them that, while he may not have been their first choice, he may not have been their second choice, that it's better to vote for a third class fireman than it is to allow a first class arsonist to become president.

CBSNews.com: So, Tom Ridge, who's been discussed. You think …

Richard Land: That would be a catastrophe.

CBSNews.com: As well as Joe Lieberman?

Richard Land: Yes. And I like Joe Lieberman. Joe Lieberman wrote the forward to my book. And I would love to have Joe Lieberman as Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State. But not as Vice President, not as Attorney General and not as a Supreme Court Justice.

CBSNews.com: Who's on the list of people mentioned for VP that you think would most excite Southern Baptists and other members of the conservative faith community?

Richard Land: Probably Governor Palin of Alaska, because she's a person of strong faith. She just had her fifth child, a Downs Syndrome child. And there's a wonderful quote that she gave about her baby, and the fact that she would never, ever consider having an abortion just because her child had Downs Syndrome. She's strongly pro-life.

She's a virtual lifetime member of the National Rifle Association. She would ring so many bells. And I just think it would help with independents because she's a woman. She's a reform Governor. I think that, from what I hear, that would be the choice that would probably ring the most bells, along with Mike Huckabee, of course, who's a Southern Baptist.

CBSNews.com: You do hear about the possibility of McCain picking somebody really outside the box, somebody who's never served in public office, like Fred Smith, the CEO of Fed Ex, or Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of HP, or Meg Whitman, the former CEO of EBay. How would those choices play?

Richard Land: Well, I don't know what their position is on the life issues. That would be the first thing I would want to know before I could answer the question. The second would be that I don't know that in this particular climate someone who is a CEO is the best choice.

CBCNews.com: Because?

Richard Land: Well, just because we're in a tough economic climate. And you think about Fiorina's, what, 40 plus million dollar buyout when her company was taken over or merged. I mean, I just don't know how that would play.

CBSNews.com: And what about Mitt Romney?

Richard Land: I think Mitt Romney would be an excellent choice. There are people in the evangelical community who would have a problem with his Mormonism. I am not one of them. I mean, I'm very clear that I do not believe Mormonism is a Christian faith. But that does not disqualify someone from being President or Vice President. And my guess would be that, probably, about 15 to 20 percent of the evangelical community would have a problem with his Mormonism.

CBSNews.com: And so, it's probably a risk not worth McCain taking?

Richard Land: Well, I don't know. What I know of John McCain, he will make this choice. One of the things that makes him interesting is that he's totally unpredictable.

I'll tell you another choice that I think would ring a lot of bells among evangelical and Catholic social conservatives, and I think could have some real electoral punch to it, is Eric Cantor, the congressman from Richmond. He's the fourth highest person in the House leadership. He is a conservative, observant Jew, a one hundred percent pro-life voting record. And if he picked Cantor, that would probably help hold Virginia. And it would increase McCain's percentage of the Jewish vote in Florida and Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

CBSNews.com: Now, you've also called Senator Obama the most radically pro-abortion candidate ever to be nominated by a major party. Why is he worse, for example, than John Kerry?

Richard Land: Well, because when he was in the Illinois State Senate, he opposed the Born Alive Protection Act. That is a bill that says that if a doctor performs an abortion on a late term fetus, and the baby manages to survive and is born alive, that the doctor then has to go back into the healing profession and try to save the baby that he had just been trying to kill. And Senator Obama opposed that bill. I don't know how you can get more pro-abortion than that. And I can't imagine even John Kerry doing that. And, of course, in addition to which, he voted against the partial-birth abortion ban.

CBSNews.com: Now, he would say he opposed partial-birth abortion with an exception for the grievous health of the mother.

Richard Land: Well, how about the grievous health of the fetus? I mean, he was part of a small group of senators, 20-something. What that tells me is Barack Obama has never met an abortion that he couldn't, at least, live with.

CBSNews.com: Now, is there anything, short of changing his positions, that Senator Obama could do to reach out to more conservative Christians?

Richard Land: I'll make a prediction to you. All of this talk that's been fomented that he's going to be able to peel off a sizeable chunk of white evangelicals, when election day comes around, we're going to find that the wish was the father of the thought. And that that is not going to come to pass. Because younger evangelicals, according to Pew Research, are even more thorough-going pro-life than their elders. And while they do want an expansion of the agenda to include issues like creation care and more emphasis on economic justice, they are not going to accept an exchange of agendas, which includes their surrendering their pro-life values.

CBSNews.com: Now, finally, I know you can't endorse anybody. But, there's no doubt who you're supporting.

Richard Land: Well, I don't support anybody. I do what I call upon Southern Baptists to do. I say that Southern Baptist pastors should never endorse candidates. But I think that Christians, of all stripes, should vote their values, their beliefs, and their convictions. And that those are far more important than their economic self interest. And so, I plan to practice what I preach. I'm going to vote my values, my beliefs, and my convictions. I don't endorse candidates. But I look for candidates who endorse my values and my beliefs and my convictions. And I will leave people to connect their own dots.

CBSNews.com: So do you then acknowledge that there's a debate over who's better for their economic self interest?

Richard Land: Well, sure. I mean, people are in different economic places. And they have different economic self interests. And, look, I would say the same thing to people who are pro-choice. You need to vote your values. You need to vote your beliefs. You need to vote your convictions. And your value system is more important than your own economic self interest. It's more important than your pocketbook.

CBSNews.com: Do you think there are a number of Southern Baptist for whom Obama would be better for their economic self interest. But their values and his don't match?

Richard Land: I don't know. I didn't say that.

By Brian Goldsmith