McCain's Faith Journey Largely Unspoken

Adelle M. Banks | Religion News Service | Friday, August 22, 2008

McCain's Faith Journey Largely Unspoken

August 22, 2008

WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain has one story he tells again and again about his religious life. In a campaign ad, a family memoir, and most recently a televised interview with megachurch pastor Rick Warren, he recalls a guard in his prisoner of war camp in Vietnam who silently shared his faith one Christmas.

"He stood there for a minute, and with his sandal on the dirt in the courtyard, he drew a cross and he stood there," McCain told Warren at the Saddleback Civil Forum on Saturday (Aug. 16). "And a minute later, he rubbed it out, and walked away. For a minute there, there were just two Christians worshipping together."

Like this signature moment, which was wrapped, out of necessity, in silence, the Arizona Republican's own faith journey has been largely unspoken.

When Warren asked McCain what being a Christian means, the senator simply said: "It means I'm saved and forgiven."

McCain's reticence on faith has some evangelical leaders, whose influence has loomed over recent elections, only reluctantly supporting the senator.

"He has never been their candidate," Calvin College professor Doug Koopman has said. "John McCain has never been a religious exhibitionist."

McCain biographer Paul Alexander says the senator's faith and military backgrounds are responsible for his religious reserve.

"He's a very spiritual person but ... in his core, he's a military man," said Alexander, author of "Man of the People: The Maverick Life and Career of John McCain." "They don't feel comfortable talking about religion."

Add McCain's Episcopal roots -- his great-grandfather was an Episcopal minister -- and you have someone who was raised in a "subdued and understated religion," Alexander says.

In "Faith of My Fathers," McCain says his father "didn't talk about God or the importance of religious devotion," but used a well-worn prayer book when he knelt to pray twice a day.

Faith -- cultivated over the years by his attendance at Episcopal day and boarding schools -- helped McCain through the tortuous 51/2 years he spent as a prisoner of war.

In solitary confinement for two years, McCain recalled in the 1999 family memoir, he "prayed more often and more fervently than I ever had as a free man."

George "Bud" Day, a fellow POW, said McCain was among those who volunteered to preach at religious services they were eventually permitted to hold at the prison dubbed the "Hanoi Hilton."

"He was a very good preacher, much to my surprise," said Day, now 83, a retired Air Force colonel who works as a lawyer for veterans in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. "He could remember all of the liturgy from the Episcopal services ... word for word."

One Christmas, McCain recalled in the memoir, as "room chaplain" he was given a few minutes to copy passages from a Bible. He then read portions of the story of the birth of Christ between hymns sung with emotion by his comrades.

"It was more sacred to me than any service I had attended in the past, or any service I have attended since," he wrote.

During much of his time as a senator, McCain has attended North Phoenix Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Arizona where his wife Cindy was baptized in 1991. But McCain has not joined the church, whose Sunday morning service is attended by about 2,200.

"He does not describe himself as one denomination or another but he felt like the Baptist church in North Phoenix had a good message, a message that resonated with him and so that is where he goes to church," said Taylor Griffin, a spokesman for the senator's campaign.

He said McCain attends church "whenever possible when he's in the Phoenix area."

Pastor Dan Yeary told Associated Baptist Press earlier this year that the McCain family has "called me at times of family challenge" such as illness, and he has "forged a friendship" with McCain.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who competed with McCain for the Republican presidential nomination, said he has spoken with McCain about faith matters.

"I believe he's a man of deep convictions and authentic Christian faith," said Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist pastor. "I have no reason to doubt that, for both he and Cindy."

Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values in Ohio, said he respects McCain's preference for a private faith.

"I believe his faith is deep but he will not use it to try to get somebody to vote for him," said Burress, an evangelical Christian who met with McCain in June along with a handful of other conservative leaders in Cincinnati. "I just think that that's his style, that he just does not wear his religion on his sleeve."

In recent weeks, McCain has made brief mentions of faith, recounting the Christian history of Georgia after Russian forces entered the country, calling Hispanic immigrants "God's children" in an advertisement and saying of today's military members: "I pray to a loving God that he bless and protect them."

But generally he has kept his faith to himself, a spokesman says, at least in part for political reasons.

"To Sen. McCain, faith is a private matter," Griffin said. "He believes that politicians or leaders shouldn't be judged on their religious beliefs but rather they should be judged on their preparedness to do the job."

(Tim Murphy contributed to this report.)

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