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John McCain: keeping faith, on his own terms

How the Arizona senator, once a POW 'pastor,' finds purpose in his beliefs and survival.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 18, 2007

New York

John McCain does not believe in destiny. God, he says, gives us life, shows us how to use it, and leaves it to us to carry out as we choose.

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In other words, the senior senator from Arizona does not believe that in surviving the ordeal of 5-1/2 years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, including torture and extended periods of isolation, he has somehow been tapped by God to become the next president of the United States.

But Senator McCain, now in the thick of his second run for the Republican presidential nomination, does believe that he is still alive for a purpose.

"There is no logical reason for me to be on earth, if you look at my life, so I should spend this time trying to serve a cause greater than myself," says McCain in a Monitor interview.

Until 1981, that meant serving in the US Navy. Since 1983, that has meant representing the people of Arizona, first in the House, then for four terms in the Senate.

As one of the better-known Republican candidates going into the 2008 presidential cycle, McCain brought to the table a well-honed persona born of blunt talk, intense personal drive, irreverent wit, and a dash of profanity. Most of all, perhaps, McCain is known for his strongly held policy views, despite the political costs.

He continues to support a major US military presence in Iraq, for instance, long after a majority of Americans reported they had stopped believing in it. His liberal positions on immigration reform and campaign finance have made him anathema to key segments of the GOP base.

But undergirding McCain's hard-charging image there lies a deep faith in God that he credits with getting him through his toughest moments as a prisoner of war – and which he still relies on. During his imprisonment in Hanoi, "there were times when I didn't pray for one more day or one more hour, but I prayed for one more minute," he says. "So I have very little doubt that it was reliance on someone stronger than me that not only got me through, but got me through honorably."

McCain says he is not "born again" and has not been baptized. He says he is "just a Christian," who for many years has been attending the North Phoenix Baptist Church in Arizona with his family. He was raised in the Episcopal Church and attended Episcopal High School, an elite boarding school in Alexandria, Va., where he was required to attend chapel every morning and church on Sunday. At the US Naval Academy, church attendance was also required.

"So I certainly was exposed!" he says, chuckling.

Apparently a lot of it sank in, though McCain would be the first to admit he was hardly a choir-boy growing up, racking up his share of demerits in high school and teetering right on the edge of expulsion during much of his time at the Naval Academy.

In captivity, covert 'church'

Being taken captive matured him fast, he has said, and over time, he discovered that having faith gave him a common bond with his fellow prisoners.

Orson Swindle, an ex-POW who spent the last 20 months of his captivity at McCain's side, recalls how important "church" was when he and the others were being held individually in separate rooms. Every Sunday, after the midday meal was finished, the dishes were washed, and the guards had departed, the senior officer in the area would signal that it was time to pray together, by coughing in a way that signaled the letter "c" for church – one cough and then three coughs.

"It was time for a solid stream of thought among those of us there," says Mr. Swindle, now a policy adviser in Washington. "We all silently said the Pledge of Allegiance, we repeated the 23rd Psalm and the Lord's Prayer, and anything else you'd want to [say] in there that would get us some help – but not out loud. If we were heard talking, they would come in and start torturing us."