Should McCain soldier on past Super Tuesday--an increasingly iffy prospect--a much more interesting religious debate could emerge, one involving Christianity, classical philosophy and the moral renewal of American culture.
The thing that excites the public's imagination most about McCain is his status as a warrior who endured five and a half years of prison and torture to be true to his country and his ideals. His story celebrates the virtues of Stoicism, the pre-Christian Greco-Roman philosophy that preached the sacred obligation to suffer any pain and indignity, even unto death, for the sake of righteousness.
Neo-conservative intellectuals William Kristol and David Brooks recently suggested that McCain's informal Stoicism offers Americans a way to talk about public virtue without depending on religion. Evangelical thinker Marvin Olasky dunned them for extolling "the religion of Zeus."
But Christian thinkers as separated by time and place as Paul, Tertullian, Augustine, Aquinas and Erasmus would not have seen classical thought as a threat. Nor would American secular heroes like George Washington, who revered Seneca, or Robert E. Lee, a devout Christian who rode into battle with the "Meditations" of Marcus Aurelius in his saddlebag.
Those men understood that Western culture rests on two pillars: Faith, the inheritance of the Jews; and Reason, the gift of the Greeks. All Western religion, philosophy, and culture comes from the creative conflict between Athens and Jerusalem.
"What the classical culture did to unify the West was to give a foundation for ethics, the need to be virtuous," says Alphonse Vinh. Vinh, a self-described "Christian humanist" who is working on a book about the Stoic tradition in Southern culture, observes a "siege mentality" among certain religious conservatives, "who are very sensitive to any kind of non-traditional Christian influence that might infiltrate the fortress.
"The problem is the early Christian church is steeped in classical culture. There are a lot of Stoic ideas in Paul's letters, and the early Church fathers were classically educated," he says.
In fact, Christian intellectuals have traditionally seen in the wisdom of the Greeks and Romans the providential hand of God at work preparing the world for the universal Messiah, born of the Jews.
Doing the right thing, even if it means resignation in the face of pain and death--that is the essence of Stoic wisdom. Duty, honor, courage, dignity, discipline--these comport well with Christianity.
The problem, from a Christian perspective, is that Stoicism is incomplete.
For one, Stoicism is aware of humanity's faults, but doesn't have the more profound sense of humanity's sinfulness, which is Christianity's inheritance from Judaism. And Stoic philosophy can be pitiless, lacking notions of love and mercy, which are at the heart of Christian teaching.
"The Stoics were not compassionate in the sense that we now use that word," says novelist Tom Wolfe. Wolfe, who says he is not a Stoic, had his contemporary protagonists in "A Man in Full" fervently embrace Stoicism as expounded by the first-century sage Epictetus.
"Epictetus says, in so many words, 'Look, you have enough problems trying to take care of yourself. You can't go around trying to take care of everyone else."
Wolfe picked up a copy of Epictetus' Discourses: "On the very second page, Epictetus says other philosophers will tell you [that] you have thousands of choices to make in life; it's up to you to make the right choices. I'm here to tell you [that] you probably don't have many choices, but you always have the choice of never saying 'yes' to what is wrong, and never saying 'no' to what is right. And always maintaining your honor.
"Of course," says Wolfe, "this fits McCain."
McCain endured torture at the hands of his communist captors. Once the North Vietnamese knew his father was a top U.S. Navy admiral, they offered him early release. Taking it would have violated the military code. He refused, over and over. McCain returned with his body broken, but his honor intact.
Today, McCain talks of restoring the confidence of Americans in their government, and inspiring young people to live nobly.. McCain's Stoic vision is ideally suited for re-moralizing a rich, secular nation in which the familiar vocabulary of religion is greeted with cynicism when employed by a politician.
Wolfe calls McCain's apparent Stoicism "a good, bracing draft of cool air in a country that is as plush, lush, and humid with wealth as this one is."
He's right. After eight prosperous but morally feckless years of Boomer hubris and self-indulgence, the presidential bully pulpit could stand a war hero who teaches that a man's true worth lies not in his material success, but in the integrity of his soul.
McCain could usher in a robust secular faith that reaches across denominational lines. It wouldn't replace traditional Judeo-Christian religion, but implicitly support it. And an America that began to love and practice classical virtues again would be ready to receive the Gospel anew, just as the lands that once practiced the religion of Zeus did almost two millennia ago.