John Mccain has finally begun to talk his walk with Jesus. Until recently, the details about the Republican presidential nominee's Christian convictions were missing in action. Starting this summer, McCain and some of his closest Vietnam War-era buddies began pulling back the narrative curtain.
These war stories reveal McCain's stoic, generically Christian spirituality and his honor-driven self-discipline. During his five-plus years as a prisoner in Hanoi, McCain had many defining religious moments. One Sunday in 1971, the North Vietnamese Communists decided to put an end to the church services being held by the prisoners. They burst into Room 7 and dragged McCain out. "Bud Day [commander among the prisoners] jumped up and sang 'God Bless America.' It was singing to the heavens," recalled fellow prisoner Orson Swindle in a recent interview with Christianity Today. "The Vietnamese dragged Day out and someone else jumped up." Next, Swindle and others started loudly singing, "Onward Christian Soldiers." That provoked a squad of armed soldiers to rush in and shut down the service completely. McCain was thrown into solitary confinement.
The prisoners' Christmas celebration that year proved to be another defining experience for McCain. For weeks, prisoners had demanded an English-language Bible to conduct a proper Christmas observance. The guards eventually relented and allowed one prisoner access to a Bible for 30 minutes. McCain was chosen. Using tiny pieces of broken pencil lead, McCain copied the Nativity story down on scrap paper. And on the evening of December 25, 1971, the prisoners held their service with the Lord's Prayer and Christmas carols as McCain recounted the birth of Christ. At the end, all sang, with much weeping, "Silent Night."
The prayer lives of these prisoners of war blossomed as never before, but not necessarily with prayers for freedom. Commander Day put it this way: "We told the guys that they could pray, but that they shouldn't pray to be released or be saved from their situation." As McCain later explained in an interview, "I think it was important, for the stability factor, that it wasn't God who was going to perform a miracle, end the war, and bring us home." Their concern was that praying the wrong way would weaken their resolve.
McCain's imprisonment included long stretches of solitary confinement. To this day, McCain's devotional practice remains a bit of a mystery. Perhaps this commitment to spiritual privacy is one reason McCain has not connected well with the high-profile faith of many evangelical leaders.
Few if any of the evangelical leaders consulted for this article consider themselves intimate with the Arizona senator—including some of McCain's most fervent faith-friendly supporters. McCain's maverick persona also grates on many mainstream evangelicals. It's no surprise, then, that many evangelical voters remained wary of McCain's bid for the presidency until he named as his running mate Sarah Palin, the conservative governor of Alaska.
This summer, more voters identified as evangelicals (12 percent) were undecided than they were at the same time in the 2004 presidential campaign. In a July ap-Yahoo News poll, a slender 10 percent of white evangelicals said they were excited about the election. But picking Palin has injected fresh enthusiasm.
The fear factor is also in play, and is coming from three sources—each one focused on Democratic nominee Barack Obama. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson has branded Obama an extremist liberal. In July, the McCain campaign released the apocalyptic "The One" TV ad, which suggested that the Illinois senator has a messiah complex. And Jerome Corsi's new bestseller, The Obama Nation, alleges that the candidate has had extensive associations with Islam, despite Obama's repeated denials.
While these fear-driven messages are focused on Obama, evangelicals have had their own fears about McCain. Although few evangelical leaders endorsed McCain during the primary season, their change of heart gathered steam in September.
A Rocky Road
Beginning in the 1980s, McCain and politically active conservative evangelicals have had several bruising encounters, which both sides are now eager to forget.
On March 14, 1973, the North Vietnamese released McCain. After extensive medical treatment, he served the Navy in many capacities, including as a liaison to Congress. Around this time, McCain's marriage fell apart due to his unfaithfulness. His wife granted him a divorce in February 1980. Five months later, he remarried. (McCain admitted at the recent Saddleback Civil Forum that his first marriage's end has been his greatest personal failing.)
McCain's appetite for politics grew, and in 1981, he decided to run for Congress. Close friends, such as the late senator John Tower (R-Texas), gave him advice and funds, and lobbied the Republican establishment on his behalf. McCain realized early on that conservative Arizona wanted a pro-life candidate. He willingly obliged.
In 1986, the rising star was elected to the Senate, replacing Barry Goldwater. But it wasn't long before McCain's relations with national evangelical leaders soured. In 1989, McCain supported his mentor Tower, who had retired from the Senate, in a bitter confirmation battle for Secretary of Defense under President George H. W. Bush. Tower ran into allegations of drunkenness and womanizing. McCain was furious over how the Christian Right, led by Moral Majority cofounder Paul Weyrich, savaged Tower, causing the nomination to fail. McCain thought these accusers were hypocritical. "The sins Tower was accused of were hardly Washington novelties," McCain would later write.
McCain's rocky relationship with evangelicals dates at least to this incident. But McCain continued to vote pro-life and support evangelicals on other issues. Gary Bauer, himself a former candidate for president and now head of the conservative nonprofit American Values, says he found the senator "quite helpful" on evangelicals' concerns upon first meeting him.
Around this time, McCain struck a more lenient stance on abortion alongside other moderates. They felt the Human Life Amendment was unattainable and that the party should amend its platform. In 1996, McCain led the charge to do that. He badly lost that fight, but wasn't finished tangling with social conservatives.
Losing South Carolina
Within three years, McCain was on the presidential campaign trail, focusing on the New Hampshire primary. McCain positioned himself as a populist who fought power brokers and special interest groups, and who remained moderately pro-life. His campaign's goal was to outmaneuver then Texas governor George W. Bush, who had the Republican establishment's clear support.
In early 2000, McCain's reputation was badly mauled in one of the darker chapters in recent American politics. After soundly beating Bush in the New Hampshire primary (by 18 percentage points), the campaign moved to South Carolina. There, an anonymous smear campaign targeted McCain, alleging he was homosexual, that he was mentally unstable due to his imprisonment, that his wife abused drugs, and that he had fathered a black child out of wedlock. (In 1991, the McCains adopted a needy girl from Bangladesh.) The Bush campaign denied any connection to these fabrications. McCain lost the South Carolina primary and his public support plummeted.
Though little evidence suggests that the Christian Coalition orchestrated the smear campaign, McCain believed it was behind it in some way. A few days later, in a Virginia Beach gym only a few miles from Christian Coalition headquarters, McCain let his long pent-up anger erupt. He denounced the Christian Coalition's Pat Robertson and Moral Majority's Jerry Falwell as "self-appointed leaders" who acted like "union bosses" shaking down their supporters for money and power. He accused them of practicing "the politics of division and slander."
Reaction was predictably fierce. McCain decided to up the ante: He told reporters traveling with him that the Religious Right was an "evil influence." Even those evangelicals supporting the senator, such as Bauer, warned that they could not justify the senator's attacks.
Faced with an unstoppable firestorm, McCain tried to brush off his remarks as "a joke." He argued that he was not against all evangelicals. But the damage was done; within two weeks, McCain's campaign for president was finished. It took years for McCain to get over his anger at the Religious Right.
In 2005, Falwell reached out to McCain to bury the hatchet. By the spring of 2006, McCain had tweaked his public comments about Falwell. He told an interviewer he no longer thought Falwell was "an agent of intolerance." The senator said, "We agreed to disagree on certain issues, and we agreed to move forward. … I believe that the 'Christian Right' has a major role to play in the Republican Party." A month later, McCain gave the commencement speech at Falwell's Liberty University, and Falwell told the Lynchburg News and Advance that McCain "is in the process of healing the breach with evangelical groups."
Meanwhile, McCain was moving to defang conservative evangelical activists and media. The senator's signature campaign-reform legislation, popularly known as the McCain-Feingold Act, prohibited nonprofits from political activity 60 days before a federal election. McCain also targeted religious broadcasters with legislation that would have decoupled channels from the programming packages that cable companies offer. The bill would have created a "pay-per-channel" scenario that would have put religious broadcasters at a deep disadvantage. Christian broadcasters came to see this as a deathblow aimed at them. (The measure never gained enough backing to pass.)
McCain was also involved in a brutal battle over immigration reform. Social conservatives, including Randy Pullen, current chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, fiercely attacked McCain, while others, such as Luis Cortes, head of Nueva Esperanza, a Latino-oriented nonprofit in Philadelphia, found an ally in McCain. Finally, McCain's connections to evangelicals were set back when he lost his closest friend, the late Arizona Speaker of the House Jeff Groscost, a social conservative. His death left a huge gap in McCain's inner circle and would later cost him dearly in understanding and advice.
Mainstream evangelicals sign on
Nevertheless, McCain's public rapprochement with evangelicals was at full swing. In early 2007, McCain called Rick Warren, Franklin Graham, John Hagee, and other evangelical leaders. He attended church dedications and hired evangelical-outreach staffers. In September 2007, for the first time, he publicly noted that he was going to a Baptist church. In fact, for 15 years the McCains had attended North Phoenix Baptist, a Southern Baptist affiliate.
Throughout 2007, McCain began to lightly lace his rhetoric with language to appeal to socially conservative Christians. He called America a "Christian nation" and allowed that he would prefer a Christian president to one of a different faith. He reiterated his conviction that "life begins at conception," and spoke at Hagee's annual Night for Israel.
In June 2007, his nascent outreach strategy imploded. The managers of his outreach efforts were fired after they claimed that McCain's campaign leaders wanted to manipulate votes. Their outburst came during a larger staff meltdown and was lost in the uproar.
Meanwhile, evangelicals' significant divisions over whom to support for president were distracting them. In January, these divisions opened a way for McCain to reassert his candidacy by winning the New Hampshire primary, a state with few hard-right evangelicals. Then, sweet vindication came with McCain's big wins in the South Carolina and Florida primaries, setting up his decisive victories on Super Tuesday.
While the nomination was McCain's, he still lacked public support from evangelical leaders. Pentecostal preacher Hagee was among the first. In late February, McCain flew to San Antonio to receive Hagee's endorsement. Criticisms of Hagee arose immediately. Hagee's prosperity gospel and his habit of making judgmental pronouncements against Catholics, Jews, and African Americans alienated many. McCain was speechless. He stopped talking about the endorsement 24 hours after receiving it. He eventually rejected Hagee's endorsement, as well as the endorsement of Ohio pastor Rod Parsley.
Other evangelical endorsements were slow in coming. Bauer of American Values endorsed McCain, but warned him that trouble was brewing. In March, McCain met in New Orleans with the Council for National Policy, an invitation-only group of socially conservative power brokers. McCain didn't talk about social issues or his faith until prodded during the question-and-answer session. Richard Viguerie, the ultra-conservative direct-mail guru, observed that many found McCain evasive about his heartfelt values.
McCain told the familiar war story of a North Vietnamese guard drawing a cross in the dirt to explain his soft treatment of McCain. But Viguerie was not alone in saying that this story, which audiences had heard many times before, was 30 years old. In other words, it didn't reveal anything about McCain's own faith convictions. (During the Saddleback Forum, McCain repeated this same story, but added at the end, "For a minute, there [were] just two Christians worshiping together.")
In June, McCain adviser Charlie Black met with the Arlington Group, a weekly meeting of social conservatives, to paint an apocalyptic picture of a possible Obama presidency. But McCain, Black told the audience, would pick pro-life judges and oppose gay marriage, adoption by homosexuals, and open expression of homosexuality in the military. McCain met with conservative Roman Catholics and Jews. He forged stronger ties with Sam Brownback, the Catholic senator from Kansas, and Jim Nicholson, former Vatican ambassador. Senator Joseph Lieberman, a conservative Independent/Democrat, escorted McCain to meetings with conservative Jewish leaders.
Evangelicals remained ambivalent. John Cook, a Christian conservative who sits on the Texas GOP State Executive Committee, put on a McCain rally with Kelly Shackelford of the Liberty Legal Institute in July, but admitted, "People here in Texas don't know what to make of McCain." In states like Arizona, white evangelicals were upset with McCain's immigration policy, while Hispanics were upset with McCain's backtracking on immigration reform.
By July, many evangelical leaders were in a near panic over the prospect of an Obama presidency. On July 1, 60 evangelical leaders met in Denver to hear the McCain campaign's pitch. They jointly announced their support, but not their enthusiasm. Even the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land, an enthusiastic supporter (not endorser) of McCain, says that the senator is "not the first choice, not the second choice, not even the third choice of many evangelicals."
Cool enough to win?
Opinion polls show that younger evangelicals and nonwhite Christians are less likely to support McCain. Evangelical youth are, if anything, more conservative than their elders on some issues. They are, for example, more likely to be pro-life. But they also appreciate the expanded issues palette that Obama seems to offer.
Though Cortes personally admires McCain, he says, "Obama has ignited the youth in our church. They are being recruited for Obama on college campuses, not in our church." Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says, "Obama is charismatic, energizing voters, and attracting youth." Mohler believes that young evangelicals will support McCain after they look at Obama's theology.
In Virginia, one young evangelical on his way to work at McCain's offices lamented to CT, "McCain is the worst candidate to have going for the GOP among youth. Obama may be the most left-wing candidate in history, but he is cool. McCain is old, unexciting, and can't speak." Still, he believed that once evangelical youth get to know Obama's stance on the issues, they will turn to McCain. "McCain will get clobbered among young people, including evangelicals, unless the fear of Obama radically increases. This election will be voting against Obama, not for McCain."
African American evangelicals' support for McCain is less than half of what their support was for George W. Bush in 2004. They feel little kinship with McCain. "McCain has never identified with the African American community," says the Reverend A. R. Bernard, a member of McCain supporter and NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg's advisory council.
Immigration is the one issue Hispanics feel most urgently needs attention. Speaking to CT in July, Cortes was in despair. A few days earlier, Luis Ramirez, an undocumented Mexican worker and the father of two children, died of convulsions after being kicked to death in Shenandoah, a city northwest of Philadelphia. His attackers yelled, "Get out of Shenandoah," according to a former Philadelphia police officer. Ramirez's body showed a vivid imprint of Jesus on his chest—where the attackers stomped on the medallion he had been wearing.
Among Hispanics in general, 66 percent support Obama for president while 23 percent support McCain. McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said they have needed to do better among Hispanics. Susan Minushkin, deputy director of the Pew Hispanic Center, says, "The only demographic category within which we detected significantly different levels of support [among Hispanics] is religion."
Cortes is an accurate barometer of Hispanics' sentiments because he has had a long, friendly relationship with McCain. "Obama's people have been calling us regularly," he notes. "We had one phone call from McCain's group." In South Florida, Cuban evangelicals feel torn between their pro-life and social compassion stances. "I feel stretched tight over what to do," one Cuban American ministry leader told CT.
After McCain's barrel loop back toward social conservatives with Palin on the ticket, his supporters hope that he is now closing in on Obama for a last-minute victory. Bauer enthused that the Democrats have lost their chance to win over some of the traditionally Republican states. Land is "ecstatic," Dobson "very excited," and Family Research Council's Tony Perkins—"checkmate for the Democrats." A recent Pew survey found that the average voter says that their conservative moral values put them "much closer to McCain than to Obama."
What McCain lacks in the personal relationships with evangelicals, his campaign strategists hope he will make up with his pro-life, pro-family patriotism. In the end, fear of Obama-style liberalism, in league with a Democratically controlled Congress, may bring evangelicals out to the polls for McCain. Still, despite his potent stories, McCain has yet to capture the evangelical imagination.
Tony Carnes, based in New York City, is a senior writer for CT.
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Christianity Today also wrote a profile of Barack Obama.
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