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Jesus Creed


McCain’s Sermon

posted by xscot mcknight

I’ve clipped a little from a New York Times article. An interview with McCain in 2004 that flows into McCain’s description of a sermon he gave in Hanoi. What’s your response? (I begin with the NYT statement and then McCain’s own evaluation.)
White evangelical and born-again Christians provided their kindred spirit, George W. Bush, with a whopping 78 percent of their votes in 2004. But Mr. McCain just doesn?t speak their language, a point that hit home when I recently reviewed transcripts and notes of interviews I did with Mr. McCain in 1996 at his home in Sedona over July 4th weekend. Twelve years is a long time in politics, but Mr. McCain seems largely the same character now as then, despite some political repositioning. I was intrigued by a passage in which he described leading religious services in Hanoi for fellow prisoners of war. ?Not because of my particular excess of religious zeal,? he explained, ?but because I?d gone to that boarding school and, of course, to the [Naval] Academy, where you had to go to chapel. So I knew all the words to the service.?
Here?s Mr. McCain?s description of a sermon he delivered :
One day I talked about the parable of when they asked Christ whether they should pay taxes and he held up a coin and said, ?Render unto Caesar, etc.? My point was and still is that when we were flying in combat, we weren?t doing God?s work. We were doing Caesar?s work. So for us to go to prison and then ask God to get us out was not fair to God, to our religion, to our beliefs and to ourselves. It wasn?t a miracle that sent a SAM [surface-to-air missile] to hit my airplane. It was a guy, a technician at a SAM site.
I think it was important, a little bit for the stability factor, that it wasn?t God who was going to perform a miracle, end the war and bring us home. It was men. It was Caesar. I think the majority of those guys felt the way I did but we just had some, just as people turn to faith healing and that kind of stuff, we had some of that. A lot of times I would pray for strength and I think sometimes I got it. Pray for patience to get through the next minute when things were bad. I just don?t think it?s fair to expect too much out of what is basically not the Lord?s business.
From NYT
As you may know, the Civil War was a battle of theology at times — some thought the hand of God was with the North; others with the South. Even when it was over, some in the South still thought God was on their side; some trumpeted that winning the war meant God was on their side. Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural (if I’ve got my facts straight here), was less confident: we don’t always know the providential ways of God in this world.



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phil_style

posted July 2, 2008 at 2:22 am


That’s one of the best things I’ve seen quoted of McKain. It alwys amazes me how christians in many countries like to think that the covenant relationship between Israel and YHWH also applies to their particualr government – this is where the mix of patriotsim and religious zeal start to get scary for me. Good on McKain for pointing out the difference between the will of the state and the will of the divine.



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Ted

posted July 2, 2008 at 7:12 am


Is not God sovereign? Does not His providence reign over all affairs?
The Lord made not have had a direct hand in the events of McCain’s life, but it obviously was part of His permissive will.



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T

posted July 2, 2008 at 7:36 am


I don’t think this is going to help McCain get any love from evangelicals.
I could be misreading him, but to me it seems very typically deist and “enlightened”—God deals with after-life stuff, heaven stuff; humans deal with earthly things. God’ll (hopefully) be there when you kick the bucket, but until then, your best hope is material. Either/or, God or man, not both/and.



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Travis Greene

posted July 2, 2008 at 7:47 am


I’m mixed on this. It’s good that McCain doesn’t have a Manifest Destiny-style sense of America as the new Israel. I’m glad he doesn’t see making war as God’s will.
But I’m troubled by anyone saying something is “not the Lord’s business.” He seems to have a more vague deistic view of God. Which is really what most people in America have, so that’s probably okay for an elected official, even a President. (Remember, even Martin Luther said he’d rather be ruled by a competent Muslim than a stupid Christian.)
It seems like his “leading religious services” was simply one aspect of what he felt was his duty as a leader among the prisoners. I don’t know the makeup of the group he was with, but if he was the only officer, he may have felt compelled to act as a sort of emergency chaplain. I don’t think that means he’s a phony, or that he doesn’t have faith in his own way. But again, it seems to be a nice, vague, Providential sort of faith, with a fair division of labor between God and man. Wouldn’t want God troubling himself, other than the occasional request for peace or wisdom, nothing too specific.
Will this hurt him among evangelicals? I dunno. Many seemed ready to vote for Mitt Romney, although that may have just been the loud types like Dobson. Most of the rank-and-file evangelicals seemed to go for Huckabee. The problem for McCain is that he just isn’t comfortable talking about his faith.



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Ron Brown

posted July 2, 2008 at 7:50 am


I really do not know Senator McCain’s heart, and his personal salvation experience. However, my read on this is that he is feeling a natural human emotion. He has doubts as to whether he is acting within God’s will. He has doubts as to whether he is even worthy to seek God’s help. I will confess that I have often had the same kind of doubts about times in my life. Is there anyone that has never had a doubt? Bottom line, none of us are worthy, not even one of us.



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ChrisB

posted July 2, 2008 at 7:52 am


A classic example of the two-spheres mentality we’re always trying to rid Christians of.
It reminds me of the woman who asked her pastor if she should pray about her little problems. He asked her, “Ma’am, which of your problems do you think are big to God?”
when we were flying in combat, we weren?t doing God?s work. We were doing Caesar?s work. So for us to go to prison and then ask God to get us out was not fair to God…
Isn’t Christianity based on the idea that we got ourselves into trouble and turn to God to bail us out?
Well, we now know that McCain’s theology is no better than Obama’s. Fortunately, we’re voting for president, not pope.



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BrianMcL

posted July 2, 2008 at 8:18 am


This does feel a little dualistic…the spheres of God and the activities of the world seem a little to separate. That being said, I think McCain has nailed something about prayer.
So often we pray to our circumstances: help me with this, give me this, take this away, or, in this context, “deliver me from prison!” However, it seems that biblical prayer is less concerned about the circumstances and more concerned about the spiritual formation as a result of the circumstances. To cite 2 examples: Jesus promises the Holy Spirit as an answer to our prayers in Luke 11 (the Spirit of sanctification!) and James prays for wisdom and maturity in James 1.
All this to say I think McCain prayed the right kind of prayers in prison. It wasn’t focused on deliverance, it was focused on maturity.



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John W Frye

posted July 2, 2008 at 8:45 am


What if McCain was saying war is not God’s work? War is Caesar’s way, not God’s. Perhaps he was saying “I was rendering unto Caesar’s what is his, so Caesar should get me out of prison.”
I, too, don’t know McCain’s heart nor am I endorsing his theology, which also is unknown to me.



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Travis Greene

posted July 2, 2008 at 10:33 am


Brian @ 7,
I think proper prayer focuses on both deliverance and maturity. Jesus prays for the cup to pass, but if it doesn’t, then he prays for God’s will to be done (the subtext, I think, being him asking for the strength to do God’s will). We should pray with the expectation that God will do great things, and if he doesn’t do what we expect, that we will learn what we need to learn, and be matured and improved by suffering. The “prayer changes me, even if nothing else” idea is true and good, but I think better used to remind us that no prayer is wasted.
John @ 8,
I think there’s something to what you’re saying, but it doesn’t seem to lead McCain to abandon the ways of Caesar. It seems more along the lines of “Faith has nothing to do with war or politics. Faith is private.”
I don’t think that would be the worst attitude in a president, but it’s certainly not what most evangelicals believe anymore. I think it’s worth noting that, although he goes to a Baptist church now, McCain was raised Episcopalian. I think he pretty much lines up with a kind of older, quasi-deistic, religion-is-a-fine-thing-in-moderation point of view. I could be wrong. But I don’t really see him giving a speech on faith except in the vaguest of terms.



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James K.

posted July 2, 2008 at 11:41 am


I appreciate Travis’s (#4) observation that it is good that McCain doesn’t profess a Manifest Destiny-type attitude toward America and its foreign policy. And I agree with his cautionary reaction to what seems to be some of the underlying theology of McCain’s statements regarding God’s involvement in the secular spheres of life (I haven’t read enough from McCain on the topic to say more). God most certainly does care about us and our lives, including things that might be characterized as secular. But Brian McL recovers an important theme: praying that God uses our circumstances. Stanley Grenz I think brings this all together beautifully in describing prayer as crying for the Kingdom in all that it entails, both in the “spiritual” and “physical” realms (my summary).
Scot, I think you are right on to point back to the Civil War. I think it proves to be a great case study in how the Bible can be brought to bear on politics and especially the politics of war. Mark Noll’s recent book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis is a spectacular study of how both sides interpreted and used the Bible, and I think it should be required reading for all evangelicals as an essential study on past failures of a simplistic hermeneutic as well as the emergence of a more robust (and I would say faithful) hermeneutical approach.



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Matt

posted July 2, 2008 at 12:12 pm


so, if anything… shouldn’t evangelicals like obama more than mccain, and agnostics/atheists and pure separation of church and state proponents love mccain?
oh, wait, right… for American public, and eveangelical groups, how Godly you are is judged by what you the government should do about abortion and gay marriages, not actually your relationship with God.



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Scot McKnight

posted July 2, 2008 at 12:21 pm


James K,
I’ll be doing something shortly on Noll’s book.



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Scot McKnight

posted July 2, 2008 at 12:21 pm


Matt, a little too churlish for a comment on a blog.



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Rachel H. Evans

posted July 2, 2008 at 12:27 pm


I’ve come to appreciate both Obama and McCain’s more nuanced approaches to religion and public policy.
Practically speaking, I think it is important for a Commander-In-Chief in particular to be able to distinguish between “the will of God” and “the will of Caesar.” Leaders who lead countries with the absolute conviction that God is on their side are, quite frankly, dangerous.
I am more comfortable with a president who has the guts and wisdom to take personal responsibility for leading the country to war, rather than conveniently shifting the burden of responsibility to God or to some sort of God-wants-democracy-for-everyone ideology. I appreciate the fact that McCain recognizes that the choices people make have consequences…that we can’t just blame God for not bailing us out when we get into trouble for lack of good military strategy or execution.
Even if I personally believe God takes a more active role in human affairs, I honestly don’t want a president who factors that into his decision-making. (Kinda like how I don’t think scientists should HAVE to factor in the metaphysical when drawing conclusions about the physical world.)
But, for the record, I’ll be voting for Obama. :)



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ChrisB

posted July 2, 2008 at 1:01 pm


Matt,
This evangelical’s vote is less about who’s more godly than who’s more likely to be a good president. As Luther put it, better a capable Turk than an incompetent Christian.



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Jeff

posted July 2, 2008 at 1:34 pm


i think you have to keep the circumstances in mind. this wasn’t an abstract reflection on the doctrine of providence. it was, essentially, a pep talk to a bunch of guys trying to survive in a Vietnamese prison. as such it emphasizes what needs to be kept in mind to _survive_.
reminds me of the things i say to myself at the end of the fiscal year. ‘this money’s not going to get raised unless i get off my butt and call some folks…’ obviously God could (ultimately does) raise the funds. however, we tend not to talk in philosophical nuances related to causality when we’re trying to survive or pump ourselves up for a challenge.



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mslater

posted July 2, 2008 at 3:38 pm


?My point was and still is that when we were flying in combat, we weren?t doing God?s work. We were doing Caesar?s work.?
Just a thought… In the context of Jesus (2nd Temple Israel), and in the era of the early church, wasn’t ‘doing Caesar’s work’ really quite a bad thing? Indeed something that was opposed by the early church to the point where Roman soldiers who converted had to abandon the military or at least pledge not to fight (more or less the same thing at the time) in order to welcomed into the church community?
I recently read Claiborne’s ‘Jesus for President’ and he talks a lot about that sort of issue, so the quote above really jumped out at me, and not in a good way.



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Skye Jethani

posted July 2, 2008 at 3:39 pm


Thanks for the post, Scot. McCain’s message about Caesar and God fits right in with the summer issue of Leadership Journal that mails in a few weeks. We’ve titled it “Render Unto: Caesar’s Place in God’s Work.”
I imagine the articles will spark more than a few conversations about what belongs in God’s realm and what belongs to Caesar’s. That’s not an easy issue to navigate–one that seems to be getting both candidates into hot water this year.



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Keith

posted July 2, 2008 at 3:45 pm


i’m glad that McCain at least sees the difference between the Kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God. He’s right, fighting/dying for our country is not the same as dying for the cause of Christ. Therefore killing for our country or “freedom” is also never to be associated with serving Christ.
i wish more evangelicals could differentiate so well. This Sunday our church will be singing the “Star Spangled Banner” declaring that God was on “our side”, the proof of which is that “we won”. i personally think it’s questionable to sing such a song in a worship gathering. How do we come to associate Christ with bombs, guns, and violence?
You heard it said, “An eye for an eye” but i say…



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Jeff

posted July 2, 2008 at 4:14 pm


Thanks for the anabaptist lovefest … I’m sure that McCain, et al wished that a shaggy emergent type had been in the cell deconstructing empire for them ;-)



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Scot McKnight

posted July 2, 2008 at 4:26 pm


Jeff,
I can’t tell if you are being serious or just horsing around, because I don’t recall your writing this sort of thing before.



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Jeff

posted July 2, 2008 at 4:46 pm


Totally horsing around! I guess as the son of a (British) soldier, I’m a little more comfortable with Christians in the military and the use of force.
Enjoyed all the comments though!



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tad delay

posted July 2, 2008 at 8:48 pm


At least McCain wasn’t under the delugian that the pro-American god was on his countries side. But I always feel baffled by people who kill but don’t see any responsibility to kill coming from God- isn’t it obvious that such killing for the state is wrong.
But I’m also going to guess that, if elected, McCain would used more license in religious rhetoric to justify war. Maybe people will cite this sermon of his to argue with his forthcoming war-mongering.



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Anthony

posted July 2, 2008 at 11:13 pm


Historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote an article about Reinhold Niebuhr in which he expressed Niebuhr’s convictions by stating:
Original sin, by tainting all human perceptions, is the enemy of absolutes. Mortal man? apprehension of truth is fitful, shadowy and imperfect; he sees through the glass darkly. Against absolutism Niebuhr insisted on the ?relativity of all human perspectives,? as well as on the sinfulness of those who claimed divine sanction for their opinions. He declared himself ?in broad agreement with the relativist position in the matter of freedom, as upon every other social and political right or principle.? In pointing to the dangers of what Justice Robert H. Jackson called ?compulsory godliness,? Niebuhr argued that ?religion is so frequently a source of confusion in political life, and so frequently dangerous to democracy, precisely because it introduces absolutes into the realm of relative values.? Religion, he warned, could be a source of error as well as wisdom and light. Its role should be to inculcate, not a sense of infallibility, but a sense of humility. Indeed, ?the worst corruption is a corrupt religion.?
It seems to me that McCain’s sentiments, though lacking theological nuance, at least avoided evoking “divine sanction” with regards to American politics, and particularly America’s involvement in war.



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Wayne Park

posted July 3, 2008 at 12:30 pm


I think his “exegesis” of the denarius passage hit it on the head in terms of orthopraxy. An encouraging look into his views on God and Caesar…



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Sven

posted July 6, 2008 at 2:43 pm


Scot,
it took me a few days to see your post that puts this link between the American Civil War and John McCain. Thanks for this. A few additional points that might be helpful to this discussion.
1) John McCain started his (“surprise”) speech at the Christians United for Israel summit (think John Hagee) in D.C. last year by saying how hard it is to be doing God’s work in the city of the devil. Now, joking maybe, but it seems to be obvious from this kind of comment that it is pretty obvious that Mr. McCain thinks that he has God on his side. So, from this point of view at least, he is safe.
2) The link to the American Civil War is an interesting one, maybe also in the light of comment 1). It seems obvious that there is a rather interesting dualism that is essential to, let’s call them, “fundamentalist” points of view. This Manichean dualism can be found throughout history, starting way before the American Civil War, but finding its expression in there, and also for example in George W. Bush’s rhetoric in language such as “axis of evil” / “you are either with us or you are with the terrorists” and plenty more (for a mind-blowing parallel Bush-Bin Laden in their rhetoric, see Bruce Lincoln’s “Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11, UChicago Press:2002, an excerpt can be found here: http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/481921.html). Very often, there is quite a bit of apocalypticism involved in this kind of view (in the sense of eternal struggle of good against evil). In the American Civil War, this is for example very interesting, as there is the North-South divide, but also the “America against the rest of the world” issue. This is where the idea of America as God’s chosen nation comes in, as well as the concept of Manifest Destiny. And, Mark Noll’s treatment of that issue is very good. Similarly, the compendium “Religion and the American Civil War”, (1998) ed. by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout and Charles Reagan Wilson, as well as Terrie Dopp Aamodt’s (2002), “Righteous Armies, Holy Cause ? Apocalyptic Imagery and the Civil War” are good resources for that (the latter being more specifically on the apocalyptic issue).
Conclusion? Very often, you cannot talk about politics without talking about religion, especially not in an American Context. BUT, at the same time, as my old pastor used to say, “if you don’t know exactly what apocalyptic eschatology is, it’s not the end of the world.” ;-)



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