John McCain: keeping faith, on his own terms

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

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.

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."

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.

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.

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."

"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.

McCain has also made it clear that, in the current presidential race, he would rather go down fighting for what he believes is right than to bend his positions to public opinion. Iraq, immigration, torture – all are issues he feels passionately about but that aren't necessarily going to land him in the Oval Office. After he started the race with the aura of the GOP heir apparent, his campaign imploded during the summer amid charges of mismanagement and overspending.

Now, he says, he's back on track, and raised a respectable $6 million in the third quarter of 2007. But he smiles wanly when the view of some pundits is suggested: that he's happy to be back as the old maverick McCain, not the establishment front-runner.

"If I could convince you of that fact…." He laughs. "I think we'd all like to be the front-runner, but I'm very comfortable where I am, especially since we're seeing some traction and movement."

Indeed, in New Hampshire, where he walloped George W. Bush in the 2000 primary by 19 percentage points, McCain is once again competitive for the lead among Republican voters.

Reaching out to religious right

McCain has also managed to keep himself in the news with controversial comments. In a recent interview with, McCain said he agreed with the assertion of a majority of Americans in a recent poll that the Constitution establishes the United States as a Christian nation.

"But I say that in the broadest sense," he continued. "The lady that holds her lamp beside the golden door doesn't say, 'I only welcome Christians.' We welcome the poor, the tired, the huddled masses. But when they come here they know that they are in a nation founded on Christian principles."

The "Christian nation" comment raised some eyebrows, leading his campaign to issue a clarification: "The senator did not intend to assert that members of one religious faith or another have a greater claim to American citizenship over another. Read in context, his interview with Beliefnet makes clear that people of all faiths are entitled to all the rights protected by the Constitution, including the right to practice their religion freely."

While causing concern in some corners, the flap over "Christian nation" may have done him some good among a constituency he has courted with limited success – religious conservatives.

"Just like in 2000, he can't get it [the nomination] without getting a significant number of us," says Gary Bauer, president of the group American Values. "When he said that, he took it on the chin, but it was the kind of thing that would get our people to sort of sit up and take notice and take another look."

Still, McCain is not likely to become the darling of the religious right. He's a reliable opponent of abortion rights, though he is not vocal about it. He supports research on human embryos left over from fertility treatments, a position that puts him at odds with religious conservatives. The same is true of his opposition to an amendment to the Constitution banning gay marriage. During the 2000 campaign, McCain famously dissed top leaders of the Christian right, but this time around, he has reached out to that wing of the GOP.

Even if McCain's edgy side still gets him in hot water, it is his patriotism that best defines him for those who know him. McCain himself says that if he hadn't gone into politics after the Navy, "I probably would have tried to go into the foreign service or some other line of work that allowed me to continue to serve."

But the rough-and-tumble of politics probably suit McCain better. His friends say he has mellowed in recent years. Has he also become more spiritual? "No," says his mother, "but I'm not looking for it. I just know that what he says, he believes."

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