- The Washington Times - Monday, April 14, 2008

Don’t expect any public testimonies of faith from presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, who is not demonstrative about his religion but who embraces a Baptist faith that is based on salvation.

The religious intentions of Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama were dissected after he publicly explained his decadeslong relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., but the senator from Arizona likely will talk little about the details of his own spiritual path other than to acknowledge that he is on one.

“The most important thing is I’m a Christian,” Mr. McCain told reporters in September on the campaign trail when asked about his religious affiliation.

Mr. McCain’s official congressional record identifies him as an Episcopalian, and he was raised in the Episcopal Church, but the senator said he now considers himself a Baptist. He cut short any further inquiry by adding that he “won’t have anything more to say about that.”

That brief exchange with reporters was before he broke out of the Republican pack in New Hampshire in January and became the presumptive Republican nominee. Now, as the campaign speeds toward the general election in the fall, Mr. McCain’s record on everything from romance to foreign policy likely will go under the microscope. Some wonder whether his reticence on religion, particularly after the Obama flap, may be a good thing.

“It is to John McCain’s credit that he is not using his faith as a political tool,” said Republican strategist Cheri Jacobus. “However, at some point in the general election when voters are taking a renewed and closer look at the candidates, he should feel comfortable talking about his journey in faith from his days in Hanoi and what role it played in shaping the man he is today.”

Some facts are known about Mr. McCain’s churchgoing. He has attended the Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated North Phoenix Baptist Church with his family for about 15 years. The 7,000-member church with an active radio ministry is led by the Rev. Dan Yeary, 69, who is described as “folksy and patriotic” and who came to his Arizona congregation after a stint at University Baptist Church in Coral Gables, Fla.

“John and I are having continual dialogue about his spiritual pursuits,” Mr. Yeary told Reuters news agency earlier this year. “John and I are friends. He has called on me to minister to the family in times of challenge and difficulty.”

Mr. McCain, in a 2006 interview, said he liked his Baptist church and his pastor’s message of “reconciliation and redemption, which I’m a great believer in.” Although he has not elaborated about the specifics of his religion, Mr. McCain, the son of a Navy admiral who attended Episcopal High School in Alexandria, wrote extensively in his 1999 best-seller “Faith of My Fathers” about how faith helped him survive during his 5½ years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese. Fellow prisoners dubbed him “the chaplain” for his role in holding makeshift services.

In the book, Mr. McCain tells a poignant story about a Vietnamese prison guard who drew a cross with his foot in the dirt for the Navy flier to see, only to rub it out before others might notice. That moment signaled to Mr. McCain that God was indeed present, even as he and his fellow captives struggled to survive the torture and living conditions inflicted upon them.

Mr. McCain campaigned for support from the Republican Party’s conservative base earlier this year, but received a tongue-lashing by James Dobson, the powerful founder of the conservative Focus on the Family.

“I’m praying that we will not get stuck with him,” Mr. Dobson said.

Now that Mr. McCain is the presumptive nominee, other conservatives have softened their tone, embracing the war hero’s pro-life stance as they prepare to challenge the Democrats.

As the Obama pastor furor subsided, some political observers said voters may find Mr. McCain’s disdain of overt religion refreshing. His low profile during the Wright flap suggests he doesn’t intend to make it a political issue, even if others in his party do.

Mr. McCain’s near silence also indicates that he is “wary of phony outward display,” said Wilfred McClay, a professor of humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He added that such an action could be simply generational for the 71-year-old lawmaker. In his day, public discussion of the details of one’s personal faith was considered inappropriate.

“The evidence suggests that his true religion is kind of civil religion, a religion of American patriotism and of sacrifice for the nation in the name of living for something larger than yourself,” Mr. McClay said. “That general idea — that you find your greatest fulfillment and purpose in dedicating your life to something more than yourself — is in some ways very Christian, but McCain always expresses it in the secular terms of country.”

Miss Jacobus said Mr. McCain’s low-key approach to his faith ultimately may help him as the election cycle continues.

“His compelling, raw personal history may explain his reticence to talk about faith and religion in this current climate where Obama’s choices with regard to how, where and with whom he practices his religion, and the churches he chooses to bring his daughters to, is so controversial,” she said. “The Reverend Wright comparison might help McCain in the short run to gain political points, but it should not be surprising that instead, McCain is keeping his integrity intact and will talk about his beliefs and religion at a time of his own choosing.”

Paul Lichterman, an associate professor of sociology and religion at the University of Southern California, said the past four years of political conversation in the United States have given many Americans the idea that religion is an important way to vet someone’s character.

“I don’t think that means that people care so much that candidates are devout,” he said. “I think people look for some kind of sign that a candidate has a strong moral reputation. I think that may be in part why John McCain doesn’t need to use religion in this campaign. His moral reputation is already pretty secure in a lot of people’s eyes.”

Mr. McCain was drawn into a religious dilemma of his own when the Rev. John Hagee, a harsh critic of Catholicism, announced on Feb. 27 his endorsement, which the senator readily accepted. A little more than a week later, however, Mr. McCain distanced himself from the Cornerstone Church minister, saying he repudiated any comments that were offensive or anti-Catholic and condemned any words that were anti-Semitic or racist.

Although he may have to quell other small issues as they erupt, Mr. McClay said, Mr. McCain probably does not face strong vetting from conservative Christians and evangelicals who initially spoke out against his candidacy.

“They will accept that he’s pro-life and leave it at that,” he said. “What vetting there is may come from a different direction, indirectly — rather like John Kerry helpfully pointing out that Dick Cheney has a lesbian daughter and hoping that this will drive away evangelicals.

“The point would be to drive a wedge between evangelicals and McCain. Or between Catholics and McCain. But still, I don’t expect a lot of that, if for no other reason than there is so much dirt yet to be dug on Obama’s religious ties,” Mr. McClay said. “We may see a very religion-free election as a result.”

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