When John McCain was chosen as one of three chaplains during his Vietnam captivity, it seemed slightly ridiculous, especially to him. He had been a wild child at the Naval Academy and was prone to defying his captors by "uplifting his center finger" and uttering "the oath that is commonly associated with that gesture," as one observer has delicately related.
"I would like to tell you that I was selected to be room chaplain because I had an abundance of religiosity," McCain explained in an interview last year with Beliefnet. He was chosen instead because he had attended an Episcopal high school and knew the Christian liturgy by heart. "So I had an ability to lead a church service."
But it turned out to be a formative experience for McCain: "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."
Once again John McCain is being forced—unwillingly and only partially prepared—into a position of religious leadership. Many Americans expect their nominee to talk about his or her faith openly and fluently. Though America is not a "Christian nation" either in fact or intention, the president has always played a role of nonsectarian, priestly comfort, especially in times of mourning and crisis. And the great movements of justice in American history—from abolition to woman suffrage to civil rights—have often been rooted in the content and language of faith.
At the recent Saddleback presidential forum hosted by Pastor Rick Warren, McCain still had all the reticence of his generation in talking about his personal beliefs. He appealed effectively to religious conservatives on a variety of specific issues—abortion, school choice, judicial appointments—but devoted only a single sentence to his own theology. And he is largely incapable of explaining how his faith informs his public priorities.
But McCain does have a case to make, even if he can't seem to make it. His old Episcopal training seems to have given him something more than a mastery of the Nicene Creed. He has often shown a stubborn sense of decency and morality that should appeal broadly to Protestants (mainline and evangelical), Roman Catholics, Jews and others who are concerned about social justice.
On torture, McCain has made a supremely moral argument: that we distinguish ourselves from our enemies by how we treat our enemies. McCain has not rooted his stand against practices such as waterboarding in pragmatic concerns about America's public image. He argues that, in Vietnam, "We knew that we were not like our enemies, and that we came from a better nation and better values and better standards." (Though McCain opposed a bill that would have applied Army interrogation standards to the CIA, he insists this legislation had nothing to do with waterboarding or torture.)
On immigration, McCain has been forced to make some policy compromises. But even at the point of his greatest political testing in the Republican primaries, he asserted the dignity, rights and humanity of illegal immigrants. In a June 2007 immigration speech, McCain talked of María Hernández Pérez, nearly 2, with "thick brown hair and eyes the color of chocolate," and Kelia Velázquez-González, 16, who "carried a Bible in her backpack." Both died terrible deaths in the Arizona desert. "We can't let immigrants break our laws with impunity," he continued. "But these people are God's children who wanted simply to be Americans."
On foreign policy, McCain's humanitarian instincts are sharp and proven. He has been an outspoken, outraged critic of oppression in Tibet and mass killing in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. He has supported global AIDS relief and proposed to "end malaria in Africa" as president. His immediate reaction in a foreign-policy crisis is usually to stick up for the victims of aggression and confront the bullies, as we have seen again in Georgia.
It is difficult to imagine McCain's connecting these dots into a coherent social-justice agenda. He does not appear to bring any broad, philosophic framework to his political decisions. Rather than reasoning from first principles, McCain makes choices case by case, based on his conceptions of loyalty and duty.
But the choices that emerge are not random. Instead of a philosophy, McCain has a code, combining a religious concern for the weak and the oppressed with a military conception of national honor—an almost Roman belief in personal integrity and sacrifice for country. And this is likely to have considerable appeal among religious voters of every background (recent polls show McCain leading among white Catholics by 22 points in Florida and 15 points in Pennsylvania).
McCain still doesn't show much "religiosity." But there is much to admire in Chaplain John and his single-finger salute.