Alexander's Column

John McCain: Veteran Faith

By Mark Alexander · Sep. 19, 2008

“And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” (John 8:32)

“For I have learned the truth: There are greater pursuits than self-seeking. Glory is not a conceit. It is not a decoration for valor. It is not a prize for being the most clever, the strongest, or the boldest. Glory belongs to the act of being constant to something greater than yourself. No misfortune, no injury, no humiliation can destroy it. This is the faith that my commanders affirmed, that my brothers-in-arms encouraged my allegiance to. It was the faith I had unknowingly embraced at the Naval Academy. It was my father's and grandfather's faith. A filthy, crippled, broken man, all I had left of my dignity was the faith of my fathers. It was enough.” –John McCain in Faith of my Fathers, his 1999 book on military tradition, his family, and his faith.

John McCain is a man of strong faith – a faith tested by torturous hardship few men have faced. It is a faith that wholly informs his character, his integrity, his purpose, his mission, his worldview.

Those who know John McCain well – his family, friends, pastor, political colleagues, and those Patriot veterans who suffered beside him as Prisoners of War – describe many facets of his personality. Their descriptions are of a man who is complicated and diverse, but to a person, they recognize him as a man of deep and abiding faith.

McCain, however, is a man who says little about his spiritual convictions, perhaps in constancy with the counsel of 12th-century Friar Saint Francis of Assisi: “Go forth and preach the Gospel; if necessary use words.”

As was the case with most of our Founders, who did not endeavor to make America a “Christian Nation” (though many of them worked tirelessly to forge a “Nation of Christians”), McCain does not make public declarations of his faith when campaigning for political office.

While he does not use his faith as a political platform, he certainly does not subscribe to the errant “Separation of Church and State” doctrine, nor does he hesitate to identify himself as a Christian when asked.

Rick Warren, pastor of California's Saddleback Church, interviewed Senators McCain and Obama in August, asking them what it meant to be a Christian. John McCain required no teleprompter for his answer, stating flatly: “It means I'm saved and forgiven.”

McCain attends North Phoenix Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation, though his “quiet faith” is surely more in keeping with his upbringing in the historic but now troubled Episcopal Church.

His Baptist pastor, Dan Yeary, says of McCain, “It is a privilege and an honor to be this close to a man I've learned to love, who has the potential to be a great president for our country. I certainly am in favor of God's endorsement on his life.”

Biographer Paul Alexander writes that McCain's quiet faith is also the result of military tradition: “He's a very spiritual person but … in his core, he's a military man. They don't feel comfortable talking about religion.”

Perhaps not in uniform, anyway.

In Faith of my Fathers, McCain says his father, a full admiral and son of a full admiral, was also a man of quiet faith, who knelt twice daily for devotions with a prayer book frayed from use.

For his part, McCain wrote that he really came into account with his Creator when he was a POW.

A long-time McCain friend, Col. Bud Day, a Medal of Honor recipient and fighter pilot who, like McCain, was shot down over Vietnam, met McCain when they became roommates at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” Col. Day was a senior officer among the POWs and, recognizing McCain's faith, appointed him a chaplain to their fellow prisoners.

Day says that McCain “remembered the Episcopal liturgy, and sounded like a bona fide preacher.”

Though McCain initially treated the assignment lightly, it was a turning point for him: “I'll never forget that first Christmas when I … read from the Nativity story…. And I looked in that room around and there were guys who had already been there for seven years and tears were streaming down their face, not out of sorrow, but out of joy that for the first time in all that captivity, we could celebrate the birth of Christ together. It was more sacred to me than any service I had attended in the past, or any service I have attended since.”

Of faith tried and tested, McCain writes, “Our senior officers always stressed to us the three essential keys to resistance, which we were to keep uppermost in our mind, especially in moments when we were isolated or otherwise deprived of their guidance and the counsel of other prisoners. They were faith in God, faith in country, and faith in your fellow prisoners. … Without faith, we would lose our dignity, and live among our enemies as animals lived among their human masters.”

“POWs often regard their prison experience as comparable to the trials of Job. Indeed, for my fellow prisoners who suffered more than I, the comparison is appropriate. Hungry, beaten, hurt, scared, and alone, human beings can begin to feel that they are removed from God's love, a vast distance separating them from their Creator. The anguish can lead to resentment, to the awful despair that God has forsaken you. To guard against such despair, in our most dire moments, POWs would make supreme efforts to grasp our faith tightly, to profess it alone, in the dark, and hasten its revival.”

“Once I was thrown into another cell after a long and difficult interrogation. I discovered scratched into one of the cell's walls the creed 'I believe in God, the Father Almighty.' There, standing witness to God's presence in a remote, concealed place, recalled to my faith by a stronger, better man, I felt God's love and care more vividly than I would have felt it had I been safe among a pious congregation in the most magnificent cathedral.”

Anyone who has been through life-changing trauma will understand these words John McCain wrote about prayer: “There were many times I didn't pray for another day and I didn't pray for another hour – I prayed for another minute to keep going.”

Of McCain's courage and fortitude, Col. Day says with certainty, “He wasn't corruptible then, he's not corruptible today.”

Capt. Tom Moe, who also got to know the real John McCain while they were imprisoned together, says that one of his strongest recollections of McCain was one day when McCain's captors were returning him to his cell after torturous interrogations. Moe looked through a pinhole in his door as McCain looked back in the direction of his cell and gave him a smile and thumbs up: “I look back and that vision of him looking over at me and going 'we're going to pull through this' under terrible, terrible conditions is a great memory for me.”

Another of McCain's fellow POWs, and one of my personal heroes, Col. Roger Ingvalson, told me this week, “I spent two years with John McCain in some of the worst circumstances imaginable. I have spent time with John under much better circumstances in the years since. John McCain has the highest integrity of any political leader I have ever had the privilege of knowing, and I have known plenty.”

In this political season, many political stump speeches end with the words, “God Bless America.” But rest assured, when John McCain uses those words, they are much more than an obligatory footnote.

Quote of the week

“I'm not running for president because I think I'm blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save our country in its hour of need. My country saved me … and I cannot forget it. And I will fight for her for as long as I draw breath, so help me God. I'm going to fight for my cause every day as your president. I'm going to fight to make sure every American has every reason to thank God, as I thank Him: that I'm an American, a proud citizen of the greatest country on earth, and with hard work, strong faith and a little courage, great things are always within our reach. Fight with me. Fight for what's right for our country. Fight for the ideals and character of a free people. Fight for our children's future. Fight for justice and opportunity for all. Stand up to defend our country from its enemies. Stand up for each other, for beautiful, blessed, bountiful America. Stand up and fight. We're Americans, and we never give up. We never quit. We never hide from history. We make history. Thank you, and God bless you, and God bless America.” –John McCain, concluding his nomination acceptance speech