John McCain: keeping faith, on his own terms
How the Arizona senator, once a POW 'pastor,' finds purpose in his beliefs and survival.
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Toward the end of the war, when the North Vietnamese lightened up a bit and put the POWs together in a room, the prisoners organized Sunday church services. McCain was the room chaplain, "not because the senior ranking officer thought I was imbued with any particular extra brand of religion, but because I knew all of the words of the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed," the senator says.Skip to next paragraph
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McCain conducted services and gave sermons, of sorts. "It was a topic, a talk," he says. "We had a choir that was marvelous…. The guy who directed it happened to have been previously the director of the Air Force Academy choir."
McCain will always remember the first Christmas they were allowed to have a service together. They had never been able to have a Bible before, but shortly before this particular Christmas, the Vietnamese handed McCain a King James Bible, a piece of paper, and a pencil. He jotted down bits of the nativity story from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
"On Christmas Eve, the first time we had been together – some guys had been there as long as seven years – we had our service," he says. "We got to the point where we talked about the birth of Christ, and then sang 'Silent Night,' and I still remember looking at the faces of those guys – skinny, worn out – but most of them, a lot of them, had tears down their faces. And they weren't sorrow, they were happiness that for the first time in so many years we were able to worship together."
For McCain, there were other moments of grace in prison. While in solitary confinement, he would be left for the night with his arms tied back in a painful position. One night, a guard walked in and loosened the ropes, then came back five hours later and tightened up the ropes again, without saying a word. Two months later, on Christmas Day, McCain was allowed to stand outside for 10 minutes in a courtyard, and that same guard came up to him. The guard stood beside him for a minute, then drew a cross in the dirt with his sandal and stood there for a minute, looking at McCain silently. A few minutes later he rubbed it out and walked away.
"My friends, I will never forget that man," McCain recounts during a town-hall meeting with voters, his voice choked with emotion. "I will never forget that moment. And I will never forget the fact that no matter where you are, no matter how difficult things are, there's always going to be someone of your faith and your belief and your devotion to your fellow man who will pick you up and help you out and bring you through."
It was, he said later, the most transcendent and uplifting experience of his imprisonment.
Faith and hate
Faith is a theme that runs through many of McCain's writings – and to him it means more than religion. In his first book, a family memoir called "Faith of My Fathers," McCain writes that his senior officers stressed "the three essential keys to resistance" during captivity – faith in God, faith in country, and faith in one's fellow prisoners. Of those three, the final one – keeping the faith in one another, the intense desire not to fail one's friends – was "our final defense," he writes. "This is the truth of war, of honor and courage, that my father and grandfather had passed on to me."
The warrior legacy of McCain's father and grandfather – both also named John Sidney McCain, both four-star Navy admirals – is ingrained in the senator's being. But it isn't until his fourth book, "Character Is Destiny," published in 2005, that he reveals another ingredient that he says was essential to his resistance as a POW: hatred.
"You come to hate your enemies, and not in the abstract because you believe they serve some hateful purpose, but in reality, and individually," he writes.