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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How, McCain is asked, does that square with his Christian faith, which teaches followers to love their enemies? In the same book, after all, he writes admiringly about how the once-imprisoned South African leader Nelson Mandela "believes truly that love is the natural condition of the heart, and that hatred is as much a burden to the hater as it is to the hated."Skip to next paragraph
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"It's a very difficult contradiction," McCain says, "because in the heat of battle, you have to hate. But when the battle is over, you have to love." That's why, he says, he fought hard for reconciliation and normalization of relations with Vietnam after the war ended. "There are certain individuals that I hope I never see again, for my own personal benefit," he says. "But I thought that if we wanted to heal the wounds of war and bring our veterans home – because a lot of them never came all the way home – it was important to have a normalization of relations with Vietnam."
A way of life
Ultimately, like most of the presidential candidates, McCain prefers to treat his faith as a personal matter. But in a Republican primary where the religious conservative vote is up for grabs, the fact that McCain attends North Phoenix Baptist Church – a large evangelical church that is part of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention – made the papers last month. McCain is usually still identified as an Episcopalian, though even during the 2000 campaign, it was no secret that he attended a Baptist church and had a spiritual adviser there in Pastor Dan Yeary. He still does.
"It wasn't so much a rejection of the Episcopal Church," says McCain. "It was, I came into that church, I sat down, I got the message of redemption and love and forgiveness, and it resonated with me. I found going to that church was beneficial to me in my life."
McCain says he prays daily, but not in the ritualized manner of his father, the grandson of an Episcopal minister. Admiral McCain prayed twice daily on his knees, with a Bible – probably to help him resist alcohol, says his son.
"It was a very deep, sincere prayer," says Roberta McCain, the senator's mother, who was also raised as an Episcopalian. "We didn't really talk about it much, I just accepted it…. Religion was not a big topic in our family."
In a way, the McCains' multigenerational emphasis on military service and focus on honor, courage, duty, and country are a form of family religion. McCain's youngest son is a marine and the next oldest is a junior at the Naval Academy.
"If it's not a religion, it's a way of life, particularly amongst the professional officer corps," the senator says. As a teen, he dreamed of studying history at Princeton University, but there was no question that he would attend the Naval Academy.
Now, says his old POW friend Orson Swindle, "John is an incredible student of history. He has the capacity to speed read and he retains it. His whole family is like that."
Of McCain's five books, all co-written with longtime aide Mark Salter, three are collections of profiles of historical figures McCain admires. The first focuses on courage, the second on character, and the new one, "Hard Call," on leadership.
"I think he feels those things need to be said, because so many people are almost embarrassed to mention moral qualities in public," says Margaret Kenski, a Republican pollster based in Arizona.
McCain admits that he has failed to live up to his own ideals on many occasions. Unlike many politicians, he readily owns up to mistakes. He takes the blame for the failure of his first marriage. In his second memoir, he outlines his mistakes in his involvement in what came to be known as the Keating Five scandal. His advocacy for limiting the role of money in politics stems from that brush with political death. Ditto his crusade against pork-barrel spending in Congress.