McCain Religious Biography
A Faith Forged as a Prisoner of War
McCain Finds Strength, Purpose in Judeo-Christian Ideals
Last updated Nov. 5, 2008
John McCain was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam when he had an experience of religious affirmation he would recount many years later. One night, after his captors had painfully bound McCain, a guard entered his room and silently loosened the ropes that pinned his head between his legs. Some months later, on Christmas Day, the same guard approached McCain in a courtyard during a short reprieve from solitary confinement. The guard drew a cross in the dirt and looked at McCain without uttering a word. Then, after rubbing away the cross with his sandal, the guard walked away.
"My friends, I will never forget that man; I will never forget that moment," the U.S. senator from Arizona and 2008 Republican presidential nominee has said during a public appearance featured on his campaign website. "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 is a story that succinctly combines the narrative of McCain's wartime imprisonment with a commitment to faith that appeals to many American voters. According to an August 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, more than seven-in-ten Americans (72%) agree it is important that a president have strong religious beliefs; this is virtually unchanged from recent years. Republicans especially are likely to say they completely agree with this view (45%); by comparison, slightly more than one-in-four Democrats (27%) and independents (27%) completely agree.
In recent presidential elections, more religiously observant Americans (as measured by frequency of worship service attendance) have tended to vote Republican in larger numbers than their less observant counterparts. In addition, Republican candidates have fared particularly well among white evangelical Protestants, who constitute about one-fourth of the electorate. George W. Bush, for example, received 78% of the white evangelical vote in 2004, up from 68% in 2000, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. McCain's surprise choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a self-described "Bible-believing Christian" with ties to Pentecostal and evangelical churches, as his 2008 vice-presidential running mate was extremely popular among white evangelicals.
During the 2008 presidential horserace, McCain's Democratic opponent, president-elect Sen. Barack Obama, showed he was far more willing to speak publicly about his faith and the positive impact religion can have on public life than was the 2004 Democratic candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. At the same time, McCain appeared less comfortable talking publicly about faith than was George W. Bush, who made religious language a hallmark of his campaigns and presidency.
McCain's relative reticence to speak publicly about religion (his POW story being a notable exception) and his history of pointed criticism of some evangelical Christian leaders have made his relationship with religious conservatives rocky at times. In the 2008 primary campaign, he tried to mend some fences by seeking and obtaining the endorsement of two influential evangelical preachers -- John Hagee of Texas and Rod Parsley of Ohio. But McCain later rejected their support after media outlets reported details of some of their controversial sermons. Hagee, who later apologized, had said Adolf Hitler had been fulfilling God's will by hastening the desire of Jews to return to Israel in accordance with biblical prophecy; Parsley had called the Muslim Prophet Muhammad "the mouthpiece of a conspiracy of spiritual evil."
Charting His Own Faith Journey
McCain speaks during a town hall meeting at his alma mater,
Episcopal High School, in Alexandria, Va.
As in his politics, McCain is something of a maverick in his personal faith, charting his own unique path between two denominations: the Episcopal Church, a mainline Protestant denomination and branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, the country's largest Protestant denomination. While McCain was raised an Episcopalian, he and his family have been attending a Southern Baptist megachurch in Arizona for years.
This has prompted the question: Is McCain an Episcopalian or a Southern Baptist? For years, McCain has been described in most sources, including his presidential campaign, as an Episcopalian. But in a September 2007 interview with The Associated Press, McCain asserted, "By the way, I'm not Episcopalian. I'm Baptist."
A few days later, McCain tried to clarify the situation: "I'd like to add there's been some talk about my religious persuasion," McCain told reporters. "I was raised in an Episcopal church and attended high school at … Episcopal High School. I have attended North Phoenix Baptist Church for many years, and the most important thing is that I'm a Christian. And I don't have anything else to say on the issue."
In the course of his 2008 campaign for president, McCain appeared to be well aware of the importance of religion to many American voters. His website included a video clip titled "Faith" in which he elaborated on his beliefs and sense of purpose, alluding to his imprisonment in Vietnam.
"My faith has been my salvation," McCain said in the video. "I went through a very rough experience in my life, many years ago, and the only reason why I'm here today is because of the faith that I had in a Greater Being who sustained me at times when I was under most difficult stress. My faith has been my anchor and my guide, and I am proud and unashamed to tell people that. I don't advertise it, and maybe I should, but the fact is the reason, 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."
"Now, that doesn't mean that He wants me to be elected or not," McCain added, "but it does mean that I have a purpose, and that purpose, I think, is to live a life based on Judeo-Christian principles and honor and integrity."
Raised an Episcopalian
John McCain, left, stands with his parents in front of a plaque
at McCain Field, a U.S. Navy training base named in honor of
Admiral John Sidney McCain, the grandfather of the candidate.
The son and grandson of U.S. Navy admirals, McCain grew up in an Episcopal household where personal faith was largely a private matter. "My father didn't talk about God or the importance of religious devotion," McCain wrote in his 1999 memoir, Faith of My Fathers. "He didn't proselytize." Yet McCain's father, John Sidney McCain Jr., prayed aloud on his knees twice a day, using "a tattered, dog-eared prayerbook."
As a military family, the McCains moved frequently. When he was transferred to Long Beach, Calif., McCain's father told a Catholic school monsignor that his family would convert to Catholicism if that was necessary for McCain to be accepted as a student. But McCain was accepted without converting and remained an Episcopalian.
When McCain attended Episcopal High School, an elite, all-boys, preparatory boarding school in Alexandria, Va., he was required to attend daily chapel services as well as Sunday church services, where he frequently recited the Apostles' Creed and Nicene Creed (historical statements of Christian faith and doctrine). McCain graduated in 1954 and became a cadet at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., where again he was required to attend chapel. He graduated in 1958 and embarked on a 22-year career as a naval aviator.
Faith as a Prisoner of War
McCain lies injured during his captivity in North Vietnam.
As a 31-year-old Navy lieutenant commander in the Vietnam War, McCain was severely injured and subsequently captured and tortured by North Vietnamese forces. McCain often refers to this experience as a time that reinforced his faith in God, his country and his fellow prisoners, renewing his sense of purpose.
In Faith of My Fathers, McCain described feeling God's love as he discovered the words "I believe in God, the Father Almighty" -- the first seven words of the Apostles' Creed -- scratched into a cell wall. He wrote that while in solitary confinement he "prayed more often and more fervently than I ever had as a free man."
"There were times when I didn't pray for one more day or one more hour, but I prayed for one more minute," McCain said in an October 2007 interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "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." Among the prisoners, McCain took the role of prison 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."
McCain was eventually released in 1973, nearly six years after he was taken captive, and returned to the U.S. to continue his naval career.
Marriage and a Baptist Church in Phoenix
After his 14-year marriage to Carol McCain ended, McCain married Cindy Hensleyin 1980. The couple moved to Arizona, where McCain was elected in 1982 to the U.S. Congress, first as a representative and then as a senator. In the early 1990s, the McCains and their children began attending services at North Phoenix Baptist Church.
"It wasn't so much a rejection of the Episcopal Church," McCain said in October 2007 of his attendance at 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." When asked by The New YorkTimes in July 2008 how often he attends church, McCain said, "Not as often as I should," adding that when he and his wife are in Phoenix, "We attend."
Southern Baptists emphasize adult baptism as a symbol of faith in Christ, and McCain has said that his wife and two of their seven children have been baptized, but he has not. Responding to questions from a reporter in April 2008, McCain called his decision about baptism a "personal thing," adding on another occasion that "I didn't find it necessary to do so for my spiritual needs." But he also has said that he has been in discussion with his pastor, Dan Yeary, about being baptized, adding that he would not do it during the campaign because it might appear insincere.
Religion and Public Life
In an often-quoted Feb. 28, 2000, presidential primary campaign speech in Virginia Beach, Va. -- the home of religious broadcaster and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson -- McCain addressed the relationship between religion and public life. McCain, who was battling Bush, then governor of Texas, for the GOP nomination, said this the day before the Virginia primary:
My friends, I am a Reagan Republican who will defeat Al Gore. Unfortunately, Gov. Bush is a Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore.
I recognize and celebrate that our country is founded upon Judeo-Christian values, and I have pledged my life to defend America and all her values, the values that have made us the noblest experiment in history. … But political intolerance by any political party is neither a Judeo-Christian nor an American value.
The political tactics of division and slander are not our values. … They are corrupting influences on religion and politics, and those who practice them in the name of religion or in the name of the Republican Party or in the name of America shame our faith, our party and our country.
Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.
McCain, left, gave the 2006 commencement address at Liberty
University, founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, right.
McCain then told the POW story and of the kindness of the guard who shared his faith, emphasizing, "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. It is the faith that we are all equal and endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is the faith I would die to defend."
On the day after this fiery speech, while conversing with reporters on his campaign bus, McCain was asked to elaborate on his comments regarding Robertson and Falwell. This time he criticized "the evil influence that they exercise over the Republican Party," a remark for which he later apologized. McCain lost the Virginia primary to Bush, and he withdrew his national candidacy nine days later.
Since then, McCain has tried to improve his relationship with religious conservatives while also emphasizing the positive role religion can play in public life. In May 2006 he gave the commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University, which was seen as a significant overture toward religious conservatives.
When asked by reporters, McCain has commented on how faith helps inform his opinions and policies. For example, the Los Angeles Times reported in April 2008 that McCain said his view that life begins at conception is based "to some degree" on his religious beliefs. "People should know the tenets of my faith and my beliefs," McCain said. But then he added that "you want to be careful to not create an appearance -- whether it's intended or not intended -- of imposing the specifics of your beliefs on others."
In a September 2007 interview with Beliefnet, McCain said that "the [U.S.] Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation. But I say that in the broadest sense. 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."
While McCain was campaigning in Kentucky in April 2008, a self-described conservative, evangelical law student asked McCain how his faith would affect his decision-making as president. As McCain often does when addressing religion, he circled back to the story about his North Vietnamese prison guard and the lesson he learned from the experience. "We can't always do it ourselves," McCain said. "Many times from the most unexpected places -- thanks to our common faith and belief -- help will come."
This religious biography was researched and written by Anne Farris, a Washington-based journalist, and Mark O'Keefe, Associate Director, Web Editorial, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Photo Credits: AP