God-o-Meter is surprised this one hasn’t gotten more attention. The Associated Baptist Press has an interview with John McCain’s longtime pastor that provides the fullest account to date of the senator’s long but complex relationship with the North Phoenix Baptist Church. McCain, raised an Episcopalian, has attended the church for some 17 years without ever becoming a member, though his wife has. McCain’s decision to forego a public, full-immersion Baptism has apparently precluded him from officially joining the church.
Interestingly, the article notes that McCain’s pastor, Dan Yeary, who has turned down repeated requests from the news media to discuss McCain’s faith and his relationship with North Phoenix, contacted The Associated Baptist Press “in an attempt to quell continued journalistic curiosity about McCain’s faith.” Did he do so at McCain’s urging? The senator’s campaign and Senate offices declined to answer questions from the ABP, so it’s unclear. Is this McCain trying either to subtly reestablish his evangelical bona fides or diffuse some of the lingering controversy over his John Hagee endorsement–or just his pastor looking out for a member of his flock? God-o-Meter will do its best to find out.
From the article:
Dan Yeary, pastor of North Phoenix Baptist Church, described the Arizona senator and his wife, Cindy, as “very unobtrusive” people who don’t seek special attention when they are able to come to worship. “They come in the side door. They’re very pleasant. They talk to people. They’re very approachable.”
But the man McCain calls “my family’s pastor” said his relationship with the candidate has not been a particularly close one. Yeary said he’s done the normal things a pastor would do for his most famous parishioner, but “no more than I would do for any church member” in the 7,000-strong congregation.
McCain, a lifelong Episcopalian, has been attending the Southern Baptist-affiliated church in Phoenix for at least 17 years. But the candidate has neither officially joined the congregation nor been baptized, which among Baptists is a public event associated with profession of one’s faith in Jesus. He has continued to list his faith as “Episcopal” in official congressional biographies.
But, the pastor said, lack of membership hasn’t kept McCain from becoming deeply involved in the church. “I have a good relationship with John,” Yeary said, recounting their first in-depth conversation. “I respect him as a friend. He is a very courageous man. And he has a delightful sense of humor.”
….McCain is a religious enigma to many reporters and observers because he does not fit squarely into the religio-political mold that many other Christian conservatives have in recent years. For instance, he has voted consistently in opposition to abortion rights during his Senate career — but has also supported government funding for embryonic stem-cell research, which many conservative evangelicals consider tantamount to abortion….
Yeary, who said he is also a Republican, stopped short of endorsing McCain himself. Asked if he would throw his support behind the candidate, he responded with Solomonic nimbleness. “It is a privilege and an honor to be this close to a man I’ve learned to love, who has the potential to be a great president for our country,” he said. “I certainly am in favor of God’s endorsement on his life.”
Asked if Christians should be pleased if McCain is the next president, Yeary said: “I will be pleased. I trust him. He will seek wise counsel, spiritual counsel. This man is devoted to his country — there’s no maybe about it.”
But don’t expect McCain to talk as easily about his faith as the current President Bush. In that regard, the candidate is more like Bush’s father, who is also an Episcopalian.
While Southern Baptists have a reputation of comfort in speaking about their evangelical beliefs, Episcopalians are, by reputation, more reserved. McCain’s style may be more a reflection of his Episcopal upbringing than his recent church affiliation.
“His personal history means he’s not going to use ‘the language of Zion’” to talk about his faith, Yeary said, referring to what some other commentators have termed “evangelicalese.” But, he noted, “a great understanding” of McCain’s religious beliefs can come from reading the candidate’s autobiography, Faith of Our Fathers.
Cindy McCain, meanwhile, is an official Baptist. She was baptized at the Phoenix church in 1991, two years before Yeary became pastor. The couple has attended faithfully since, the pastor said, as have their children — although they too have not joined or been baptized.
Yeary said McCain and then-pastor Richard Jackson had a conversation about membership and baptism when Cindy McCain joined the church. Yeary did not reveal details of that conversation but suggested McCain decided then he would retain his Episcopal identification.
“You have to be baptized by immersion to be a member [of North Phoenix],” Yeary said. “John and I have dialogued about that.” Yeary declined to give details but said conclusively, “John is an Episcopalian, and he and his family attend North Phoenix Baptist Church when he is in town.”
“McCain’s an Episcopalian.” God-o-Meter wonders if that line will wind up getting McCain in trouble. Earlier in the year, he made lots of news for publicly identfying as a Baptist. And GOM doubts McCain will want to challenge his pastor about what he is.