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Reprinted from Wall Street Journal Online.
While Barack Obama was trying to vanquish Hillary Clinton, John McCain has been focused on a challenging target of his own: religious conservative voters.
He’s always had a mixed relationship with evangelicals, heretofore a key part of the Republican base. Apparently his decision in 2000 to call Christian leaders “agents of intolerance” did not succeed in winning them over. Go figure.
Last week, Sen. McCain tried again, pledging to appoint conservative judges and combat “moral relativism.”
But Sen. McCain would be wise to remember that it was not, as Democrats often assume, George Bush’s position on issues like abortion and gay rights that mostly won over Christian voters. It was his personal faith narrative. He cast himself as a ne’er-do-well drunk who turned his life around through his faith.
Sen. McCain has a powerful faith narrative, too – how his faith helped him through his POW experience – but in the past has been reluctant to talk much about his spiritual life. There are signs that he’s trying to come out of his spiritual closet.
The most dramatic example was his Christmas ad, run before the New Hampshire primary, in which he described a powerful moment during his time as a prisoner of war when a guard had briefly loosened the ropes from Sen. McCain’s arm and drew a cross on the dirt.
In his book, he wrote: “We both stood wordlessly looking at the cross until, after a minute or two, he rubbed it out and walked away. I saw my good Samaritan often after the Christmas when we venerated the cross together.”
In the ad, he said: “We stood wordlessly looking at the cross, remembering the true light of Christmas. I will never forget that no matter where you are, no matter how difficult the circumstances, there will always be someone who will pick you up.”
Is it possible that the addition of the phrase, “remembering the true light of Christmas,” was designed to change the point from being about finding hidden goodness in the midst darkness, to one also implying Sen. McCain’s devotion to God – the “true light of Christmas”? Was this the first sign of the Religification of John McCain?
In a recent op-ed, Karl Rove, President Bush’s strategist, recounted the cross-in-the-dirt story and added another. While in prison, Sen. McCain had been appointed “chaplain” and led some impromptu services. Mr. Rove quotes a fellow prisoner of war, Bud Day, recalling that Sen. McCain “sounded like a bona fide preacher.” Noting that Sen. McCain in the past hadn’t talked much about such intimate moments, Mr. Rove advises, “There is something admirable in his reticence, but he needs to overcome it.”
While Mr. Rove likely used the chaplain story to show Sen. McCain’s piety, Sen. McCain explained it differently in an interview with Beliefnet: “I would like to tell you that I was selected to be room chaplain because I had an abundance of religiosity. But the fact is that I had gone to church all my life, I had gone to an Episcopal school where we went to church chapel every morning, I went to the Naval Academy where chapel attendance was mandatory, I knew all of the words to the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed. So I had an ability to lead a church service.”
In the past, Sen. McCain has tended to emphasize a sense of duty as the key to his survival in Vietnam. “Glory belongs to the act of being constant to something greater than yourself, to a cause, to your principles, to the people on whom you rely, and who rely on you in return,” he wrote. “A filthy, crippled, broken man, all I had left of my dignity was the faith of my fathers. It was enough.”
This is a powerful testament to Sen. McCain’s character and code of honor. What it is not is a declaration that God was the primary source of strength or object of his faith.
Compare that to his comments in a recent interview in which he described his religion as “my sword and my shield and my sustenance and my strength.” Sometimes, he said, “I prayed for another minute that I could withstand what I was experiencing.”
That powerful sentiment is no doubt genuine. It is also a sign that he’s begun to “overcome” his reticence.