I spent an evening in Minneapolis, just as the Republican National Convention was cranking up, with a group of about 50 Christian conservatives who were frankly bewildered about the shape and the future of their movement. Rumors were circulating that Hurricane Gustav might prove so ferocious that the whole convention might even be canceled. But that wasn't this group's main concern. They were mostly bothered instead that just hours from launching the Republican ticket into the general campaign nobody had a clue who John McCain's running mate was going to be.
The group included some powerhouses of the so-called religious right. The tone was notable, though, for its sense of powerlessness. If there was agreement on anything, it was the likelihood that the McCain appointment, when it came, would be a disappointment and a frustration.
The concern, though, wasn't directed only at John McCain and his advisors. Folks in the group were even a little suspicious of each other. Just how loyal, they were quietly asking (and testing) each other, do we have to be to prove our faithfulness to the cause? How much pragmatism is allowed?
Or, to be more specific, if McCain over the next few hours chooses an abortion-tolerant VP like Tom Ridge or Joe Lieberman, would we really walk? And if we did, what would that walk look like? Would it simply mean a few million disgruntled evangelicals silently sitting out the election-or would it be noisier and better organized than that, perhaps including a third-party realignment? At the meeting, though, nobody quite dared going there; the possibilities were too ominous. The group backed off efforts to take a definitive straw vote.
Late in the evening, after three people led in almost anguished prayer, folks left for their hotel rooms-but with nothing more than a prayer for anything resembling unity. "If we can't even agree among ourselves what we really want," one of them asked, "how can we blame John McCain if he doesn't seem to know what we want-or would settle for?"
Recalling and rehearsing a few details of that gloomy gathering seems appropriate now as we head down the runway to lift off into the final stages of this interminable presidential campaign. I report on that dark meeting because what followed was so unpredictable but also so important.
Out of nowhere just a few hours later came the surprise nomination of Sarah Palin as running mate to the maverick McCain. Her name had been mentioned at our meeting, but quickly dismissed as improbable. Now, the lightning-bolt impact of this woman's sudden arrival on the scene, touching everything from our glum gathering to the nation at large, was something to behold-and something political professionals may ponder for years to come.
The effect of the Palin appointment, of course, will not be known until Nov. 5. And certainly even before then we will discover that the Palin perfection isn't all we dreamed it might be. She is not our messiah-or even an angel.
But what I learned again last week was that the unscripted moments in life are almost always the best-and the most rewarding. We grind away at our assignments. We sag in our efforts to strategize. And then the God of heaven surprises us with end runs, including totally unexpected patterns.
Two surprise patterns in recent days have been formative of and for the larger evangelical community. Before they happened, Rick Warren's Saddleback interviews with Barack Obama and John McCain were written off by skeptics as meaningless and mushy. They proved instead to be definitive and enormously helpful to many who eased back into their chairs, renewed in their sense that Obama and McCain were indeed offering starkly different packages-and a little more secure that the traditional evangelical-GOP alliance deserved another try.
The other, of course, was Sarah Palin's appointment-which roused them out of those same chairs in excitement. Nobody planned it. Nobody's quite sure yet what was in the complicated McCain calculus-or if it was just an example of McCain's impulsive decision-making.
What was altogether clear was that, at least for a few days, the very unscriptedness of it all had captivated a nation.
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