PHOENIX, Ariz. (BP)–Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain isn’t a Southern Baptist, but he’s closer to being one than you might think.
The U.S. senator from Arizona was raised Episcopalian but has been attending North Phoenix Baptist Church for approximately the past 15 years when in Arizona. He’s not a member, although his wife is.
Despite questions about McCain’s faith -– a Politico.com story recently had a headline referencing how the senator “shies away from religion talk” –- McCain’s pastor says he’s confident McCain is an authentic Christian.
“He has a strong faith and he is committed to Christ,” North Phoenix Baptist pastor Dan Yeary told Baptist Press. “I don’t have any doubt about it.”
McCain’s wife, Cindy, was baptized at the church before Yeary arrived. Yeary had been at the church only a short while when he first spoke with McCain.
“I had been here about a year, and the senator called me one day and asked to stop by and visit with me,” Yeary said. “I was blown away. It was just a cordial happy meeting.
“We have two topics of conversation all the time: faith and family. That’s it. We never talk about policies. We don’t talk about politics or issues. John introduces me as his family’s pastor.”
The McCains “slip in the side door” when they visit.
“They’ve been around enough that folks respect them and tend not to bother them. I don’t know what’s going to happen now, though,” Yeary said, laughing.
McCain’s faith is being spotlighted this year perhaps more than it would have been in previous years, simply because President Bush spoke openly about his faith during his first campaign in 2000 and has continued to do so, and because the two Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have made it a point to make religion a bigger role in their public speeches and interviews than some previous Democratic candidates have.
Bush famously answered a question in a 1999 debate about which “political philosopher or thinker” had most changed his life by saying, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” Pressed to give more details, Bush responded, “When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the Savior, it changes your heart. It changes your life. And that’s what happened to me.”
The aforementioned Politico.com story said McCain talks about values and patriotism bus so far hasn’t made his faith a significant part of the campaign.
“In an Oprah Winfrey era in which soul-baring and expressions of faith are the norm for public figures, the presumptive Republican nominee, open and candid about much else, retains a shroud of privacy around his Christianity,” the story said.
McCain, Yeary said, comes from a tradition where public figures are less open about their faith.
“He’s a historical Episcopalian, and if you and I sat down with him and started talking Baptist talk, he just doesn’t have that kind of vocabulary,” Yeary said.
Yeary preached the funerals for both of Cindy McCain’s parents and has also visited with the McCains when various family members were sick or hospitalized, he said. Yeary became convinced of the genuineness of McCain’s faith in the late 90s, when he conducted an interview, for the church, with McCain about his prayer life.
“We sat in my office with the cameras going and talked about his faith experience and how God sustained him through the POW experience [in Vietnam],” Yeary said. “It was a fascinating conversation. The POW experience defined him and his relationship with God, no question about it…. I am confident that he’s a prayer. I’m confident in that in his own statements to me about his faith…. I pray for him everyday. I really do, and our church prays for him.”
McCain’s great-grandfather was an Episcopalian minister, and McCain knew enough about the Bible when a POW that he was “designated de facto chaplain by his comrades in captivity,” Politico.com said.
One of McCain’s favorite stories about his faith occurred one Christmas when he was POW, when a friendly prison guard standing next to McCain in a dirt courtyard did something McCain still hasn’t forgotten.
“[H]e rather nonchalantly used his sandaled foot to draw a cross in the dirt,” McCain said in a message posted on his website last Christmas. The story was made part of a campaign TV commercial. “We stood wordlessly looking at the cross, remembering the true light of Christmas, even in the darkness of a Vietnamese prison camp. After a minute or two, he rubbed it out and walked away. That guard was my Good Samaritan. I will never forget that man and I will never forget that moment.”
McCain has indicated he might be baptized in the future. When asked last year in an interview with Beliefnet if baptism was something he “still might do,” McCain responded, “Oh, sure yeah.”
“But, some of the factors haven’t got so much to do with religion as they have to do with just — I’m in conversations with [my] pastor about it, as short a time ago as last week,” he said. “But I would not anticipate going through that during this presidential campaign. I am afraid it might appear as if I was doing something that I otherwise wouldn’t do.”
McCain told InsideCatholic.com he liked “Yeary’s message of reconciliation and redemption which I’m a great believer in,” Reuters reported.
Yeary said McCain is someone he admires.
“I really do,” Yeary said. “He’s a man of deep convictions. He has a passion for the United States and freedom. I don’t understand why anybody would want to run for president. John McCain, I think, it’s in his DNA. I think he’s wired to be a genuine patriot of hope and freedom.”
How often do they talk?
“I don’t bother him, but he’ll initiate a conversation when he feels like it,” Yeary said. “… I feel very confident and comfortable that John will call me when he feels he has something he wants to talk about. I’ve found that to be a wonderful pleasure.”
Michael Foust is an assistant editor for Baptist Press.