Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

John McCain: Living His Faith, But Private About It

Recently, I shared at some length here at the Mirror of Justice (here, here, and here) my impressions after listening to the interesting observations on faith and private and public life offered by Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Compassion Forum held before the Pennsylvania primary. In another post on the trends in the Catholic vote during the Democratic primaries, I noted that “Senator McCain chose not to participate in the Compassion Forum at Messiah College earlier this month, saying that he takes a more private approach to his religious faith. We will have to see whether McCain then is able to convince faithful Catholics that he respects their perspective, values their communities, and understands the centrality of religious faith and observance in their lives. McCain’s ability to speak directly to working class and non-urban Catholics has not yet been tested.”

In a column in today's Wall Street Journal, “Getting to Know John McCain,” Karl Rove confirms McCain’s insistence on remaining very private about his faith, but argues that “if Mr. McCain is to win the election this fall, he has to open up.” The column relates stories (always shared by others and rarely mentioned by McCain) about how McCain’s faith shows itself in what he does say and do in private, dating back to his years as a prisoner of war . Herewith some examples:

Another story I heard over dinner with the Days involved Mr. McCain serving as one of the three chaplains for his fellow prisoners. At one point, after being shuttled among different prisons, Mr. Day had found himself as the most senior officer at the Hanoi Hilton. So he tapped Mr. McCain to help administer religious services to the other prisoners.

Today, Mr. Day, a very active 83, still vividly recalls Mr. McCain's sermons. "He remembered the Episcopal liturgy," Mr. Day says, "and sounded like a bona fide preacher." One of Mr. McCain's first sermons took as its text Luke 20:25 and Matthew 22:21, "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's." Mr. McCain said he and his fellow prisoners shouldn't ask God to free them, but to help them become the best people they could be while serving as POWs. It was Caesar who put them in prison and Caesar who would get them out. Their task was to act with honor.

Another McCain story, somewhat better known, is about the Vietnamese practice of torturing him by tying his head between his ankles with his arms behind him, and then leaving him for hours. The torture so badly busted up his shoulders that to this day Mr. McCain can't raise his arms over his head.

One night, a Vietnamese guard loosened his bonds, returning at the end of his watch to tighten them again so no one would notice. Shortly after, on Christmas Day, the same guard stood beside Mr. McCain in the prison yard and drew a cross in the sand before erasing it. Mr. McCain later said that when he returned to Vietnam for the first time after the war, the only person he really wanted to meet was that guard.

* * *

[I]n 1991 Cindy McCain was visiting Mother Teresa's orphanage in Bangladesh when a dying infant was thrust into her hands. The orphanage could not provide the medical care needed to save her life, so Mrs. McCain brought the child home to America with her. She was met at the airport by her husband, who asked what all this was about.

Mrs. McCain replied that the child desperately needed surgery and years of rehabilitation. "I hope she can stay with us," she told her husband. Mr. McCain agreed. Today that child is their teenage daughter Bridget.

I was aware of this story. What I did not know, and what I learned from Doris, is that there was a second infant Mrs. McCain brought back. She ended up being adopted by a young McCain aide and his wife.

"We were called at midnight by Cindy," Wes Gullett remembers, and "five days later we met our new daughter Nicki at the L.A. airport wearing the only clothing Cindy could find on the trip back, a 7-Up T-shirt she bought in the Bangkok airport." Today, Nicki is a high school sophomore. Mr. Gullett told me, "I never saw a hospital bill" for her care.

Query: Will circulation of such stories through the grapevine make any difference? Should Senator McCain be expected to speak more directly to religion in the public square, as did the Democratic contenders at the Compassion Forum earlier this month?

Greg Sisk


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