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For McCain, Silence on Religion is Golden

April 15, 2008

Just one day before lambasting Barack Obama over his recent comments about religion, John McCain was a no-show at Sunday's CNN Compassion Forum on faith. That's because when it comes to discussing his own religious beliefs, the Republican presidential nominee believes that silence is golden. And judging by the fawning stories from the Washington Times, CNN and the Politico, the press corps seems to agree. But McCain's reticence to speak about his faith doesn't represent a generational preference for private piety. No, McCain's silence is an essential strategy to avoid alienating his party's evangelical base and independent voters alike by drawing attention to his confusing religious conversion, his myriad past gaffes and his current backing from extremist ministers.
During his address to the annual convention of the Associated Press, John McCain made it clear that Barack Obama can't hide from his comments about religion in small town America:

"Nor did they turn to their religious faith and cultural traditions out of resentment and a feeling of powerlessness to affect the course of government or pursue prosperity. On the contrary, their faith had given generations of their families purpose and meaning, as it does today."

But hiding from religion is exactly what John McCain has in mind. Judging from recent headlines from CNN ("McCain More Private About Prayer Than Rivals") the Washington Times ("McCain Keeps his Faith Out of Politics") and the Politico ("McCain Shies Away from Religion Talk"), the American media seems content to give John McCain yet another free ride.
In a June 2007 interview with the McClatchy papers, McCain put described his golden rule this way:

"I think it's something between me and my creator. It's primarily a private issue rather than a public one. When I'm asked about it, I'll be glad to discuss it. I just don't bring it up."

But there are important reasons why John McCain was so eager to avoid answering questions on his personal faith during Sunday's Compassion Forum. That's because in all likelihood, he couldn't.
Pick a Religion, Any Religion
For starters, McCain would have had to address the fundamental question about which religion he professes to follow. No doubt, his contradictory and suspiciously-timed statements regarding his on-again, off-again Episcopalian-to-Baptist conversion is a story that still needs telling.
During this presidential campaign, McCain has shifted positions when it comes to what he religion now considers himself to be. In June 2007, McClatchy reported, "McCain still calls himself an Episcopalian." But as the 2008 South Carolina primary approached, McCain had a convenient-timed change of heart as he appealed to the Palmetto's State's massive evangelical base. In August, as ABC reported, "McCain's campaign staff identified him as 'Episcopalian' in a questionnaire prepared for ABC News' August 5 debate." But by September 2007, McCain announced he had in fact switched teams:

"It plays a role in my life. By the way, I'm not Episcopalian. I'm Baptist."

Interestingly, as the Carpetbagger Report noted at the time, congressional directories "all identify McCain as an Episcopalian." And in a flattering Reuters profile last month, Dan Yeary, McCain's pastor of 15 years at the 7,000 member North Phoenix Baptist Church, "declined to comment on McCain's reluctance to finally undergo a baptism ceremony, a key ritual of the faith." As Yeary put it, "John and I are having continual dialogue about his spiritual pursuits."
McCain's Faith-Based Follies
McCain's present hesitation to speak out on issues of faith may also be due to controversies that engulfed him in the past. At almost every turn, John McCain found himself in hot water.
Take, for example, Mr. Straight Talk's hate-love relationship with the religious right. As he prepared for his second presidential run, John McCain in the spring of 2006 sought to repair his frayed relationship with the religious right, one that cost him so dearly during the 2000 South Carolina primary. On April 2, 2006, McCain appeared on Meet the Press and retracted his famous 2000 claim that the late Reverend Jerry Falwell was an "agent of intolerance." (Asked by Tim Russert whether he still viewed Falwell as an agent of intolerance, McCain grudgingly owned up to his flip-flop, "no, I don't.") On May 13, 2006, McCain delivered the commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University. There, the two men walked on stage together, where Falwell then praised his former foe, "the ilk of John McCain is very scarce, very small." It's no wonder the Daily Show's Jon Stewart asked McCain that April, "Are you going into crazy base world?" It's even less surprising that McCain replied, "I'm afraid so."
In the fall of 2007, McCain's rhetorical outreach to the GOP's evangelical base assumed comic proportions. In September, the Episcopalian-turned-Baptist McCain said, "The most important thing is that I am a Christian." One month later in October he declared, "I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation." Facing an immediate backlash from the Anti-Defamation League and others, McCain relented and acknowledged, "Yes, I believe a Muslim could be president."
McCain's Pastor Problems
No doubt, John McCain doesn't want to discuss his ham-handed reversal and shameless pandering when it comes to Christian conservatives. Even more problematic is that the effort has been only partially successful: the religious right leaders that now back him may be just as damaging to him as the ones that don't.
Clearly, McCain's work with the GOP's evangelical leadership is incomplete. Early on, James Dobson of Focus on the Family said, "I'm praying that we will not get stuck with him." Just two weeks ago, Dobson continued to publicly voice his concerns, "I have seen no evidence that Sen. McCain is successfully unifying the Republican Party or drawing conservatives into his fold," adding, "to the contrary, he seems intent on driving them away."
Given John McCain's tight-lipped attitude when it comes to the details of his own spiritual journey or the hot button social issues of the day, many rank and file evangelicals remain hesitant to aggressively support him. As CNN's Dana Bash reported:

"Honestly, I haven't gotten a good feel for him. I've been to his Web site a few times and I haven't gotten a good feeling about where he stands when it comes to other issues that aren't mainstream issues that Christians look at," said Doug Enders, an evangelical voter at New Covenant Fellowship Church in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

But some of the leading lights of the radical right have been more than willing to stand up for John McCain over his hard-line foreign policy views. As it turns out, the distance from Falwell's Lynchburg campus to the stages shared with John Hagee and Rod Parsley was a short one.
In February, McCain declared himself "very proud" and "very honored" to have Hagee's endorsement. The End-Times Texas pastor and head of Christian United for Israel (CUFI) isn't merely an anti-Catholic bigot (he called the church "the great whore" and a "false cult system"), but an advocate of accelerating Armageddon by promoting a nuclear showdown with Iran. As for Parsley, whom McCain deemed his "spiritual guide," the gay-bashing Ohio minister said of Islam that "America was founded, in part, with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed."
Ultimately, McCain offered a half-hearted apology for Pastor Hagee's more extreme views on Catholicism, if not his desire for an End of Times conflict with Iran. Still, it reflected McCain's belief that on matters of faith, the less said, the better.
About Those Ten Commandments
In its glowing piece, the Washington Times theorized that McCain's general refusal to discuss matters of religion and morality merely reflects his own supposedly unimpeachable personal integrity. As Paul Lichterman, an associate professor of sociology and religion at the University of Southern California, put it:

"I think people look for some kind of sign that a candidate has a strong moral reputation. I think that may be in part why John McCain doesn't need to use religion in this campaign. His moral reputation is already pretty secure in a lot of people's eyes."

Not if those people are familiar with John McCain's marital history. As Salon detailed back in 2000, the tale of John and Cindy isn't exactly the stuff of supposed Republican family values:

It seems that McCain, who had once revealed to fellow prisoners of war in Vietnam that he wanted to be president, was restless in 1979. As Navy liaison to the Senate, he didn't have the career momentum he had counted on to propel him into an admiralty and on to the White House. He was 42, mired in stifling ordinariness. (Civilians call it "midlife crisis.")
But McCain was making bold career moves on the home front, hotly pursuing a 25-year-old blond from a wealthy Arizona family -- while married. Carol, his wife at the time, had once been quite a babe herself apparently, until a near-fatal car accident (while her husband was in Vietnam) left her 4 inches shorter, overweight and on crutches. The couple had three children, whom Carol cared for alone while her husband was in Vietnamese prisons.
McCain's strategy worked perfectly: After chasing Cindy Hensley around the country for six months, he closed the deal late in the year, had a divorce by February and was married to Hensley shortly thereafter. Bingo! McCain was a candidate for Congress by early 1982, his coffers full, his home in the proper Arizona district purchased.

John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life described McCain's religious philosophy as a sense of commitment to duty, not doctrine, concluding, "His could be called a 'soldier's faith.'" As a military man, John McCain it would seem can follow orders, just not commandments.
Leading God's Own Party
By all indications, John McCain thus far has been wildly successful in threading the needle when it comes to his religious faith. On the one hand, he has secured the nomination of a faith-based Republican Party increasingly committed to tearing down the wall between church and state. On other, the media have utterly failed to press him on the changing personal beliefs and policy positions he adopted in order to garner the GOP nomination. So while John McCain claims that "I'm unashamed and unembarrassed about my deep faith in God," he's understandably none too eager to talk about it. As Republican strategist Cheri Jacobus stated without a trace of irony, "It is to John McCain's credit that he is not using his faith as a political tool."


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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