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In the summer of 2008, John McCain had two jobs: retain leadership of his party as their presumptive presidential nominee and find a running mate. These tasks were, as history as shown, fatefully intertwined. But at the time, as Americans watched the election unfold, the story seemed intriguing if simple: a young, charismatic upstart Democrat running against an old-guard Republican. No pundit predicted this as the beginning of a new era of American politics. It was just another round in the “bold versus old” plot of national elections.
My task that summer, as assigned by the editors at the relatively-new Religion Dispatches, was to write a piece about the religion of John McCain. McCain had made some claims about a born-again experience, and he allied himself with the “Christian faith.” Yet there seemed something missing in the middle of this talk. When I began researching, I didn’t think of the work as investigative. I thought that I would review the alignment between the American military and American religions, a subject on which Jon Ebel has written eloquently. Instead I found something else. That “something else” is as much about what the American public needs to hear about religion as it was about what McCain felt or thought about religion.
On August 30, 2018, John McCain’s family found some form of ritual rest for his body at the North Phoenix Baptist Church. As the commentators continue to debate the meaning of his public life, I hope that we, the voters, continue to ask what meaning we find in such denominational and collective ritual in an age defined by his very specific, and enormously consequential, political choices and representative religion.
“I know how the world works. I know the good and the evil in it.” —John McCain
When talk turns to the intersection of religion and politics, religionists are a bore to have around; what you want is titter and amusement. But scholars of religious studies don’t offer much by way of demonstrative surprise at the obscenities of public faith. Like the manager of the strip club, they’ve seen it all before. Whisper to a religionist that the Christian candidate has a grandchild produced out of wedlock and you’ll get a game of one-upmanship. “Well, if you think that’s crazy, let me tell you about the nun in Dubuque who…the Hindu cleric who…the Catholic soccer mom who…the born-again president who…” Or, just as likely, you might get a little shrug, a roll of the eyes, and a tiny harrumph. “Religious people are just like nonreligious people,” one colleague remarked to me recently, “except religious people have whole cosmologies to explain their failures.”
What may seem like a flippant position is actually an elaborate argumentative vantage point that scholars of religion have been refining for over one hundred years. Religionists are, by their training, by their dispositional nature, less interested in the debunking of the religious subject (“I knew you were lying!”) than we are in the study of the religious subject (“Such a complicated way to understand the world!”). What religionists have learned through all this analysis is that there are no consistent or pure religious subjects.
There have been men and women throughout history—of towering, articulated faith and of impressive, practiced piety—who have found ways to sin, prevaricate, and seemingly contradict the ideal postulate of their orthodoxies. It is no surprise that a man of Christian consensus might have an Afrocentric preacher, or an evangelical may have an impregnated teen, or a Catholic may have a weakness for plagiarism, or an Episcopalian may have a hankering for Charles Keating’s cash. These aren’t exceptions in the study of religion, they are the rules. Men and women believe even as they struggle, relentlessly, to behave.
So when I say that John McCain may not believe in God, I do so with serious thought, and with no small indifference. It matters very little to me (as a voter, as a thinker, and as a believer) that John McCain doesn’t articulate a deity familiar to any available denomination of Christianity (or Judaism or Hinduism or Islam). John McCain is, indisputably, a man of courage and intelligence. To suggest that he is not recognizably Baptist (nor ostensibly Episcopalian) is merely to demonstrate that our enterprise of discerning religion from political candidates misses, precisely, the realities of religion.
In some contrast to the pursuits of journalism, the religionist does not anticipate the craven, presuming that all words of faith are pandering rhetoric meant to appease men with guns and girls with God(s). Rather, our job is to collect the available artifacts of religion (words and acts supplied in archive or public record) and render an analysis of the subject. For students of religion, this analysis is not an inherently apolitical exercise, but it is, at its best, one disentangled from theological prescription. Somehow, without a God (but not, as we will see, without a powerful creed) John McCain has forged for himself a moral mode, a discourse, a rhetoric of righteousness. What, then, ought it matter whether he is or is not, technically speaking, Christian?
It apparently matters to him, and to his opponent, and maybe it matters to you. McCain has noted several times that the “number one issue… that people should [use to] make a selection of the president of the United States [is] will this person carry on in the Judeo-Christian principle that has made this nation the greatest experiment in the history of mankind?” A person’s faith is, according to McCain, an “important part of our qualifications to lead.” Bracketing his dubious grasp of constitutional history, McCain’s words direct our assessment. How ought we estimate the existence of such Judeo-Christian principle? And is such a principle properly religious?
As I proceed here with a study of McCain’s religious words and religious acts, it is worth noting that there is no test, no catechism, and no shibboleth (as much as the voting public may, for whatever reason, desire one) that will prove religious identity or personal commitment to a specific God. People say and do a lot of things they don’t actually mean. Trying to know what people actually do believe, or what they actually do mean, requires psychic skill far beyond the purview of most refereed journals, most tenured academics, and certainly beyond the polygraph limits of the American media. Remember (yes, you, Senator McCain; you, Senator Obama; and you, voting Americans): words of faith are precisely that: words. To know a man’s religion as an observer (a voter, a journalist, a scholar, an outside believer) is to know, only and entirely, his language game. This is John McCain’s.
Acts of faith
From the start, it should be clear that we don’t have a lot to study. The most consistent aspect of McCain’s performance of religion is his droopiness toward expressive devotion. When it comes to communal ritual and institutional affiliation—the social expressions of religious belief—McCain offers little more than a confusing hopscotch of churches and a sense of presumptive Protestantism. His strongest acts of faith have been political maneuvers, like his 2008 attempt to create alliances with evangelical leaders in an effort to convince the party’s base that he is a Bible believer. This despite the fact that he denounced the religious right in 2000 as “agents of intolerance” and despite the definitional truth that he was not, by any useful meaning of that category, an evangelical. This is one of the many reasons the selection of Governor Sarah Palin was such a brilliant choice as a co-conspirator in 2008. Central casting could not have supplied a better religious beard.
Even in his 2008 convention speech McCain would not admire publicly Palin’s religious belief, choosing rather to note that “she knows where she comes from and she knows who she works for. She stands up for what’s right, and she doesn’t let anyone tell her to sit down.” McCain’s rhetoric is littered with invocations of chutzpah and independence, even as his has been a (theological and professional) career bent on a studied moderation. “Ultimately,” writes McCain biographer John Karaagac, “we may say that McCain’s life offers a study in appropriateness.”
Yes, McCain has done what was expected of him: he, great-grandson of an Episcopal priest, attended an Episcopal High School, matriculated to the Naval Academy, then devoted himself to military service before transferring his duty to elected office. In high school, he attended mandatory chapel every morning and mandatory church twice on Sundays. He learned every line of the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed, acts of memorization which would later earn him the role of ad hoc prison chaplain in the Hanoi Hilton. When he married a woman more regularly religious, he followed her to church when they had time to go. He would listen, and nod, and think that there was something good about all this fellowship, all this love.
Such a rendition of McCain’s appropriate religious life fails to offer the fleshy, flashy McCain; the McCain of infamy and admiration. McCain’s life story (articulated in memoirs and stump speeches) is suffused with talk (and pride) for insubordination, fearlessness, and nonconformity. He fancies himself a “maverick.” Perhaps this is why he has such a hard time tying with a denomination, and why he doesn’t like talking about anything as singularly conceding as religious devotion.
For some observers, the fact that McCain doesn’t talk much about his faith, about his Christianity, is a denominational inevitability. “McCain, actually, is being very authentic by keeping it inside,” writes voter Eric Gorski in a letter to the New York Times, “He doesn’t wear religion on his sleeve because he comes from a generation and upbringing—Episcopalian—that tends not to.”
Such a socially determinist explanation might apply if McCain had not made an abrupt move to a different church in the early 1990s. Although his campaign lists his affiliation as “Episcopalian,” McCain corrected a reporter in 2007, commenting, “By the way, I’m no Episcopalian. I’m Baptist.” That year—preceding his current national candidacy, just seven years after he was outfoxed by Bush in South Carolina—saw many oddly confessional claims from McCain on subjects religious. “It wasn’t so much a rejection of the Episcopal Church,” McCain said in October 2007 of his move to the North Phoenix Baptist Church. “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.”
He “got” the “message of redemption.” He’s been “going” to church. These are claims of some acceptance and presence, but not the conversion or holy abjection frequently described by individuals whose worlds have been transfigured by a particular reading of the gospel, a particular preacher’s poignancy, or a particular ritual process. Becoming Baptist was, by McCain’s reckoning, a Sunday respite. Conveniently for him, this churchly idyll was found by quitting one of the smallest mainline denominations in order to attend the single largest Protestant sect, by leaving the land of Gene Robinson for the world of Billy Graham, Rick Warren, and Mike Huckabee.
For people who don’t enjoy the intricacies of Christian denominationalism, McCain’s language of change may seem adequate. He once drove a Ford, now he drives a Chevy: What’s the difference? For religionists (the sort of people who love the messy details of sectarian schism), McCain’s terse description of North Phoenix does not supply nearly enough explanation for what is a jolting swap, like trading the Jetta for a Suburban.
Yet McCain supplies no wake-up call, no re-awakening of his spirit to explicate his substitution of Sunday affections. He offers no specifications of the kind of Christ that pressed him from a the Book of Common Prayer to the Baptist Faith and Message. Nor, as mentioned above, has he shown the increased piety of the convert. When asked how often he attends church McCain says, “not as often as I should.” When asked whether he has participated in adult baptism, a ritual requisite for converts to the Convention, McCain says no, calling it “a personal thing,” adding on another occasion that “I didn’t find it necessary to do so for my spiritual needs.”
McCain’s decision not to participate in a major ritual of Baptist practice may be laziness, may be diffidence, or it may be a desire to evade hypocrisy. If I don’t take communion when I attend an Episcopal church, it’s not because I am antagonistic to communion (or Episcopalians). I don’t take communion because this ritual act of belonging is not mine because I do not, properly, belong. Why does McCain choose not to belong where he claims to belong? If these rituals are not McCain’s, which are? Are his prayers Nicene still? Were they ever? McCain’s acts of faith requires a return to requisite high school ritual. Or, as he would have it, a return to Hanoi.
Words of faith
For most political leaders, God is littered about their speeches, press releases, floor statements, editorials, and memoirs like verbal pork barrel. Federal executives and legislators tend to collapse into predictable patterns of religious invocation, using lines from the Gospel of Matthew, images of David and Goliath, or talk of covenants to build a City on a Hill in order to flourish their claims of political power. Yet in his years of public service prior to 2008, John McCain’s speeches are models of secular aridity. He doesn’t just occasionally speak of God or faith or America’s Christian promise; he never does. Indeed, John McCain does not like to talk about religion. “I’m unashamed and unembarrassed about my deep faith in God,” he has said, “But I do not obviously try to impose my views on others.” When pressed, McCain has been known to snap back to interrogating reporters, “The most important thing is that I’m a Christian. And I don’t have anything else to say on the issue.”
When McCain does use religious metaphor, it is language cribbed from another belated believer. McCain likens himself to Reagan, a man whose faith made a surprise appearance only once he achieved elected office. In his 2008 convention speech, McCain called upon his party to return to the “party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan.” In 2000, McCain separated that same party from the party of the religious right, fatefully remarking: “My friends, I am a Reagan Republican who will defeat Al Gore. Unfortunately, Governor Bush is a Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore.”
This Reagan Republican has come around on Pat Robertson politics, volunteering to sacrifice once again for his country a piece of himself. At the “Civil Forum on the Presidency” moderated by Rick Warren at Saddleback Church this past August, and on countless other occasions during the campaign, McCain has canonized one anecdote to answer every question about God, every question about faith, every inquiry about his religious devotion. This is, of course, the tale of the dirt cross at the Hanoi Hilton. McCain describes this period with rehearsed (always dry-eyed) poignancy, recounting how his commitment to The Code of Conduct left him to rot for five and half years, how trapped in solitary confinement he was allowed a minute or two outside on Christmas day, and how one guard looked him straight in the eye on that day (that holy day) and “drew with his sandal a cross in the ground.”
In recent press events, this moment in Hanoi has become his road to Damascus, the tale told to shunt rumors of irreligion. Conversion narratives have become mandatory formulations in American politics, signaling simultaneously theological affinity with an important voting bloc as well as the character requisite to serve an executive post with populist humility. As political scientist David S. Gutterman has observed, words of conversion feed multiple audiences:
Those who have their own conversion narrative will be able to recognize themselves in another’s story, and those who are not saved will be hopefully seduced by the plot of the story, so that they may know themselves as chaotic and fragmented, needing only to follow the path laid bare by the narrative plot in order to experience Jesus and be made whole.
That conversion talk is so much more common in contemporary politics than it was twenty-five years ago can be paralleled with other signs of the triumphant solipsist, including the success of confessional talk shows, competitive reality programming, and the discovery that celebrities are “just like US!”
Even within this din of come-to-Jesus moments, McCain’s story is discordant, failing to supply some of the basic ingredients for a ritual confession of faith. It includes no mention of God (or Christ) as an actor in his life or even in that dirt-drawn moment. There are no searching first-person studies of his character, expelling moment of personal sin revealed, revelled, and renunciated.
His reading of the story varies, most frequently returning to it as a common text for two people seeking fellowship: “For a brief moment, neither one of us were in Hanoi, we were just two Christians celebrating the birth of Christ together.” Another time: “We stood wordlessly looking at the cross, remembering the true light of Christmas.” Yet another: “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.”
The story, and its retread morals, has stirred a bit of predictable controversy. Blogger Andrew Sullivan finds it bears a striking resemblance to a tale once told by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. There have also been intimations that McCain only added the story once he entered politics, due to its absence from his 1973 captivity narrative. And historian John Fea has noted, aptly, that no matter the truth of the tale, it “tells us more about the guard’s faith than McCain’s.”
Whatever the origin of the story, McCain can’t stop in the midst of this election cycle from telling it to us. The cross may have been marked in the dirt, and McCain may indeed have been filled with a certain form of communal wonder, but is that wonder a “Christian” awe? McCain’s unwillingness to format the story neatly into a born-again plotline may indicate his own reticence to propagate a rhetorical fraud. In his memoir Faith of My Fathers, McCain does not describe this incident as a conversion to Christianity, but as a conversion to country, as the time when he finally understood his “self-respect in a shared fidelity to my country.” The cross in the ground was a crossroads for McCain, but not from sinner to saved. Rather it was his turn from Lt. Commander Cad to Citizen McCain. He mentions the words “Christian” and “Christianity” rarely, but when he does, it is always—always—connected with an idea of “America” or “American.”
Consider these examples. When Rick Warren asked what faith in Jesus means to him, McCain replied: “Means I’m saved and forgiven. And when we’re talking about the world, our faith encompasses not just the United States of America, but the world.” Elsewhere, in a Time magazine rendition of the dirt cross story, he comments: “I will always remember as well the Christmas services that my fellow prisoners and I held in a cell, when I gave thanks to God for the blessings he had granted me with the company of men I had come to admire and love. In the life of our country, faith serves the same ends that it can serve in the life of each believer, whatever creed we may possess.” McCain admits to a faith, and suggests that this “faith” has been his total “salvation.” “The only reason why I’m here today is because I believe that a higher being has a mission for me in my life—a reason for me to be here.”
That “higher being” isn’t God. That higher being is America. Again, after another telling of the Hanoi Hilton conversion, he proclaims: “This is my faith, the faith that unites and never divides, the faith that bridges unbridgeable gaps in humanity. That is my religious faith and it is the faith I want my party to serve, and the faith I hold in my country.” Later, in his 2008 convention speech, McCain becomes more explicit, saying that after Hanoi, “I wasn’t my own man anymore. I was my country’s.” Salvation has but one source: “My country saved me. My country saved me, and I cannot forget it.” Someone once called atheism an undetectable God. McCain’s God can be detected, it can be found: his God is the country for whom McCain survived.
The strident—near stunning—focus of his religious ardor has been to his nation. You won’t find McCain singing Baptist hymns. You won’t hear him weigh out the meaning of the Episcopal sacraments. You won’t find him doing these things because he doesn’t need them, nor does he (by all public practice and proclamation) want them. He has all the ritual and power, holiness and community he could want. Often McCain draws on images of Theodore Roosevelt’s frontier as his virgin paradise, a place where men followed the strenuous life to messianic effect.
These men, the men and women who pursue such new lands and new struggles, are McCain’s parish, and their devotion is his ritual practice. His religion is the civil religion of America. “You know,” he explained at this year’s convention, “I’ve been called a maverick; someone who marches to the beat of his own drum. Sometimes it’s meant as a compliment and sometimes it’s not. What it really means is I understand who I work for. I don’t work for a party. I don’t work for a special interest. I don’t work for myself. I work for you.”
This is the conversion of Hanoi. The cross in the dirt is religious talk, but it is the observation of a man who cannot make religious moments of his own, so he turns to the devotions of others to derive his piety. The real fall-on-the-knees moment is McCain’s conversion to self-sacrifice, to his nationalist orthodoxy. David Foster Wallace, who recently passed away, summarized this attitude with excruciating clarity in his account of McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign:
Think about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the nuts and having fractures set without a general would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened.
After a vivid portrayal of McCain’s torture (broken ribs, shoulder broken with a rifle butt, broken arm, teeth knocked out), Wallace places us in McCain’s position:
Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would cry out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer…Would you have refused the offer? Could you have?
That McCain did stay, that he did so against his obvious self-interest, in loyalty to the Code, might demonstrate, as Wallace puts it, that McCain is certifiably insane. But we also know…
[F]or a proven fact, that he is capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self-interest. So that when he says the line in speeches now you can feel like maybe it’s not just more candidate bullshit, that this guy it’s maybe the truth. Or maybe both the truth and bullshit—the man does want your vote, after all.
The man does want your vote, after all. And so we return to where we begin. How do we ever know the mysteries of the man’s soul? And what, really, should those mysteries have to do with our political estimations? To declare that McCain is not Christian against his (once rare; now constant) protestations to the opposite is not intended to be insubordinate to his proudly proclaimed truths. It is merely to say that, like policy positions, religion has an evidence pool. If a man says he supports nuclear power, we can check his voting record and decide for ourselves if the votes support that position. If a man says he believes in God, the evidence is harder to find. Did Jesus die for your salvation?
We take it as a matter of faith: McCain says so, then it is so. But for the religionist, this is a position that would garner no high marks. Scholars wobble, constantly, between our task of understanding the material (“What, precisely, does the Book of Mormon say?”) evaluating the material (“How, precisely, does this map onto broader patterns of religious behavior?”). John McCain calls himself Christian, yet his religious worldview (articulated in word and act) does not map anywhere near the Episcopal Church of his childhood, nor the Baptist church of his adulthood. Indeed, it is hard to find John McCain’s religion without a lot of conjure, and a lot of (dangerous, on scholarly grounds) imagination.
Yet he has conceded to a religious mimicry, invoking (lightly, never avowedly) from (what just happens to be) the most consequential Protestant voting bloc in the Republican Party. Contemporary culture, doped up on Daily Show smirks, is certain that all surfaces deceive, all tales are seductions, and all one-liners lie. To be sure, honesty is not the coin of the political realm, and we may be savvy to practice a vigilant doubt. It is tempting, then, to suggest that McCain’s dramatic turn to religious talk in the last few months is the world’s greatest cover-up, hiding the secret truth that this is no man of God.
Someday we may find evidence that Rove edited McCain’s texts, that McCain resisted Palin’s Pentecostal panache and that, all along, McCain begged that he might never again have to tell the tale of the cross and the dirt. Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll find diary upon diary authored by John McCain keening for Christ’s particular grace. Or maybe we’ll hear stories (from his daughters, from his sons) of how embarrassed, how mortified he was to be such a religious monkey, how certain he was that The Code of Conduct was all he should need, and how it was that that man, that eight-year President, made him be so very evangelical in order to win back the very party that (once upon a time, not so long ago) made him lose a primary by calling his daughter black.
But for now, we just have this man, this testifying and freewheeling man who has made his own choices (in word and act). He is a man running hard in the hardest race of his life, a man who believes in his country, who believes he would serve it well, who believes that he is the best American for the job. And since all Americans are assumed to be, at base, Judeo-Christian, then it is no lie at all to say that he is, at base, a good Christian man. And so he is. A good Christian man. He says it, and we have to believe him. We, the scholars. You, the voters.
We believe him against the evidence because it feels better to believe that his life—his survival, bound and tied, long ago—is a testimony to Jesus’ mercy. We feel better believing that nobody would ever, or could ever, lie about loving God, or lie about loving Christ. And despite our own schismatic compulsions (in daily life, in sectarian divide), we like to believe that all denominations look the same in the dark.
Finally, we want to believe that words of faith are different than words of politics, that when a man speaks of God he is more honest, more reliable, than he is when he speaks of policy promises. In short, we just want to believe that belief is. That’s what we want, and it’s what McCain now provides. Who among us could judge him? After all, it’s not in his self-interest: it’s in ours. McCain plays in a theater, with a script, that we designed (not without a little assistance from Them, from Rove and the Southern Baptist Convention and the RNC and the DNC). Despite his disinterest in the subject called Jesus, he dances for our pleasure, he sings a salvation song for us, for those who he seeks—always, relentlessly, with frightening abandon, self-deception, and self-sacrifice—to serve.
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This article was assisted by research completed by Anne Farris and Mark O’Keefe for the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (see their religious biography of McCain, as well as the public record of McCain’s speeches).