(CNSNews.com) - Leaders of evangelical groups have reacted to Arizona Senator John McCain's comments on the "intolerant agents" of the Christian right, calling them "divisive" and "grasping at straws."
In a campaign stop Monday in Virginia Beach, Virginia - where the Christian Coalition is headquartered - McCain said that political intolerance by any party is neither a Judeo-Christian nor an American value.
"There are corrupting influences on religion and politics, and those who practice them in the name of religion or in the name of the Republican Party or in the name of America shame our faith, our party, and our country," said McCain.
McCain went on to say, "Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton on the left or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right."
"Why should you fear a candidate who shares your values?" McCain asked, insisting that he is "a Reagan Republican who will defeat Al Gore." And then in a swipe at his Republican rival, McCain said, "Unfortunately Governor Bush is a Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore."
Roberta Combs, executive vice president of the Christian Coalition, issued a statement Monday calling McCain's comments a "transparent effort to divide one American from another on the basis of religion."
"Our pro-family message of faith and freedom will draw citizens to the polls in record numbers as we encourage all people of faith to continue their active involvement in the process we call Democracy," said Combs.
"I am deeply offended and greatly irritated at Sen. McCain's comparison of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to race-baiters and hatemongers such as Al Sharpton," Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, told CNSNews.com. "Christian conservatives are the last group in America that can be discriminated against with impunity, and Sen. McCain is proving that."
Land said that were McCain to win the Republican nomination, Christian conservatives would be unable to support him. "He would depress the Republican turnout by several million votes," said Land.
Rev. Donald Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, told CNSNews.com that he "deeply resented" the comparison McCain drew between leaders of the Christian Right and black activists such as Louis Farrakhan.
"This was an utterly stupid statement to make, and it's going to hurt his chances for the Republican nomination," said Wildmon. "He's desperate to win the nomination, and he's let his alligator ego get in the way of his killdeer sense."
Chuck Donovan, executive vice president of the Family Research Council, sent a letter to the major candidates today urging them to "cease the negative bickering over religion and instead take a positive approach to faith."
Donovan urged candidates to support the Religious Liberty Protection Act that prohibits state and local officials from burdening religious exercise without a compelling reason.
"It's time for faith and politics to come together and strike a positive note for religious freedom," said Donovan in urging the bill's passage.
A spokesperson for the Rev. Jerry Falwell of Liberty University told CNSNews.com that he would have no comment on McCain's remarks.
In his comments Monday, McCain did note that "evangelical leaders are changing America for the better," and he offered the examples of Chuck Colson's prison ministries.
"James Dobson, who does not support me, has devoted his life to rebuilding America's families," said McCain, and he praised others in the conservative movement for leading the fight against pornography, cultural decline and abortion.
"I stand with them," he said. "I am a pro-life, pro-family, fiscal conservative and advocate of a strong defense. And yet, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and a few Washington leaders of the pro-life movement call me an unacceptable presidential candidate. They distort my pro-life positions and smear the reputations of my supporters. Why? Because I don't pander to them. Because I don't ascribe to their failed philosophy that money is our message."