It's well known that John McCain's relationship with evangelical Christian leaders is strained. But did you know that McCain attended daily chapel in high school and was a room chaplain for his fellow prisoners of war in North Vietnam? I didn't. Then I read The Los Angeles Times' brief religious profile of McCain. The story is not comprehensive; in fact, it leaves out significant gaps of McCain's life. But it does cast the Christian faith of the Arizona senator in a new and unexpected light.
Early in the story, reporter Maeve Preston shows the development of McCain's faith. Her six paragraphs are worth quoting in full:
In his early life he was influenced by his "deeply religious" father, who relied on his faith in a long struggle with alcoholism. Prayer and church became an "ingrained part" of McCain's life at his high school, where he attended chapel every morning and on Sunday evenings, even after church, he says.
McCain says in those days, he was a self-absorbed rule-breaker who became a hard-partying naval aviator. It was not until after his plane was shot down over Hanoi in October 1967, he wrote in his memoir, "Faith of My Fathers," that he learned to "grasp" faith tightly. In solitary confinement, he prayed "more often and more fervently than I ever had as a free man."
"I was very slow in maturing," he said aboard his campaign plane. "I knew right from wrong; I knew the Bible; I knew the Nicene Creed and the Apostles' Creed and the tenets of my faith. And although I neglected them, the time came that I could fall back on them as a net, as a way of salvation, literally."
Often his faith helped him "get through another minute," he said. At the same time, McCain said, he learned to be "careful not to ask God to do things that were temporal rather than spiritual."
In McCain's first talk as chaplain, he cautioned fellow prisoners not to pray for their release -- reminding them of a parable in which Jesus was asked whether it was right to pay taxes. "He held up the coin and said, 'Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's,' " McCain said, recalling his lecture. "The point of my talk was we were doing Caesar's work when we went into combat, so we really shouldn't ask God" for release.
That lesson guided McCain not to pray for his own personal success. "I pray to do the right thing so I won't look back in regret or embarrassment or even shame that I betrayed my principles and my faith," he said.
At the end of the story, Preston summarized the role of McCain's faith in recent years:
McCain has spoken more openly about his faith than he did in the 2000 race, said Steven Waldman, co-founder of Beliefnet.com. Waldman, who just published a book on the faith of the Founding Fathers, said there was an overlooked similarity between Bush and McCain: Both have a "clear, dramatic faith narrative."
"In Bush's case, it was 'I was a drunk and faith helped me get through it,' " Waldman said. "In McCain's case, it's 'I was a prisoner of war and faith helped me get through it.' I think that faith narrative is much more important than anything in particular that [McCain] says."
This week in eastern Kentucky, 26-year-old Stephanie Treap-Davis, a self-described evangelical conservative and law student from Pikeville, asked McCain what effect his faith would have on his "executive decision-making."
McCain didn't directly answer the question but told the same story about the North Vietnamese guard. This time he summed up what he considers the moral of the story: "We can't always do it ourselves," he said. "Many times from the most unexpected places -- thanks to our common faith and belief -- help will come."
All of these paragraphs were excellent. Preston gave her readers news about McCain's faith.
The only problem with Preston's story is that it underplayed the late middle part of McCain's life -- the period from his release from captivity until his first run for the presidency in 2000. The exception is the following paragraph:
McCain began attending a Baptist church after marrying Cindy McCain in 1980 and moving to Arizona. At North Phoenix Baptist Church, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, McCain was attracted to the pastor's message "that we're all sinners, but we can benefit from God's grace if we recognize those sins and move forward," he said.
Preston needed to give her readers more information about McCain's switch. He went to chapel daily as an Episcopalian and then attended a Baptist church. Why? By not providing a clue about McCain's switch, readers wonder about the depth of McCain's faith.
Preston also writes that McCain is a "staunch opponent" of abortion. Yet she notes that he supports federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. This contradiction is never resolved. Does McCain not believe in protecting early human embryos? Does he think that the cost of protecting that nascent human life is outweighed by the possibility of healing and curing adults? McCain's faith must surely bear on those questions.
Despite my two criticisms, I think that Preston's report deserves praise and a wider readership. McCain is often portrayed and portrays himself as an American patriot first and last. Preston showed that McCain was a pious Christian and continues to seek God's aid. Considering that McCain is the Republican's presumptive presidential nominee, she pulled off an impressive feat.