The Quiet Faith of John McCain: War Hero Volunteered to Preach While Imprisoned in Vietnam

Sen. John McCain waits as he is introduced to speak at a rally in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Oct. 26, 2008. McCain died Aug. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Sen. John McCain waits as he is introduced to speak at a rally in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Oct. 26, 2008. McCain died Aug. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war who embraced patriotism loudly and religion quietly, died Saturday (Aug. 25) at the age of 81.

McCain was diagnosed in July 2017 with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.

The longtime Arizona Republican senator, reared in the Episcopal Church, attended a Southern Baptist megachurch in his later years. He viewed himself as a Christian but had “a distrust of the religious right and a faith that is too public, too political,” author Stephen Mansfield, author of books about the faiths of presidents and presidential candidates, told Religion News Service in December 2017.

It was during McCain’s runs for president, especially his second campaign in 2008, that he spoke about his faith. But, even then, he tended to tell a story about a silent expression of belief in God.

In a family memoir, a campaign ad as well as a televised interview with megachurch pastor Rick Warren, he recalled a guard in his prisoner of war camp in Vietnam who shared his faith one Christmas.

“He stood there for a minute, and with his sandal on the dirt in the courtyard, he drew a cross and he stood there,” McCain told Warren at the Saddleback Civil Forum in August of that campaign year. “And a minute later, he rubbed it out, and walked away. For a minute there, there were just two Christians worshipping together.”

Asked by Warren what being a Christian means, McCain simply replied: “It means I’m saved and forgiven.

At the time of that campaign, McCain biographer Paul Alexander told RNS that the senator’s military and faith backgrounds were responsible for his religious reserve.

“He’s a very spiritual person but … in his core, he’s a military man,” said Alexander, author of “Man of the People: The Maverick Life and Career of John McCain.” “They don’t feel comfortable talking about religion.”

During his 5 ½ years in a POW camp in Vietnam, McCain drew on his Episcopal roots — his great-grandfather was an Episcopal minister and McCain attended Episcopal day and boarding schools.

In his family memoir, “Faith of My Fathers,” he recounted how he “prayed more often and more fervently than I ever had as a free man.”

George “Bud” Day, a fellow POW, said McCain was among those who volunteered to preach at religious services they were eventually permitted to hold at the prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton.”

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SOURCE: Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service