U.S. Senator John McCain, who has had problems winning over religious conservatives in his run for the GOP presidential nomination, showed up Tuesday at a meeting of Christian Zionists to declare himself a Christian and “proudly pro-Israel.”

McCain, an Episcopalian who when at home in Arizona attends North Phoenix Baptist Church, has sought recently to repair his image with the Christian Right–a key Republican voting bloc–tarnished largely by an angry outburst seven years ago when he termed movement icons Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell “agents of intolerance.”

McCain appeared to have made peace with Falwell before the Moral Majority founder’s death in May, delivering a commencement address at Falwell’s Liberty University in 2006. But conventional wisdom says the senator still has a long way to go to atone for past sins like opposing a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and sponsorship of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill in 2002 that Christian broadcasters like James Dobson said would stifle what they could tell voters prior to an election.

McCain, who doesn’t talk as much about his own faith as some other presidential candidates, got personal in what was billed as a “surprise” visit to a Washington gathering of Christians United for Israel convened by San Antonio pastor and author John Hagee.

“As some in this audience may know, I spent several years as a prisoner of war, a time when all my freedoms were rescinded,” McCain said, referring to his five-and-a-half years as a POW during the Vietnam War.  “And yet it was my very faith in a Supreme Being that sustained me and strengthened me while at the hands of my captors.”

NBC reported that people attending Hagee’s gathering didn’t like President Bush using the word “occupation” to describe Israel’s activities in Palestinian territories during Wednesday’s White House briefing. McCain didn’t directly criticize Bush, who defeated him for the Republican nomination in 2000, but he gave the pro-Israel crowd a message it wanted to hear.

McCain said the bond between Israel and America is not just strategic but “a moral one.”

“To be proudly pro-American and pro-Israeli is not to hold conflicting loyalties,” McCain said in his prepared text. “It is about defending the principles that both countries hold dear. That is why today I stand as I believe so many of you do: a Christian, proudly pro-American and proudly pro-Israel.”

McCain also criticized Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom Hagee compares to Hitler and views as a threat to both Israel and the United States. In a book last year Hagee suggested a coming nuclear showdown between Iran and Israel could set the stage for the biblical Battle of Armageddon and Second Coming of Christ.

McCain called Iran “the world’s chief state sponsor of international terrorism” that defines itself “by hostility to Israel and the United States.”

“It is simply tragic that millennia of proud Persian history have culminated in a government today that cannot be counted among those of the world’s civilized nations,” McCain said. (Iran was called Persia in biblical times.)

“When the president of Iran calls for Israel to be wiped off of the map, or asks for a world without Zionism, or suggests that Israel’s Jewish population return to Europe, or calls the Holocaust a myth, it is clear that we are dealing with an evil man and a very dangerous regime,” McCain said.

McCain said Tehran’s “continued pursuit of nuclear weapons clearly poses an unacceptable risk.” (Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.) McCain called for economic sanctions against Iran, and said the possibility of military action “must remain on the table.”

“Military action isn’t our preference,” McCain said. “It remains, as it always must, the last option. We have some way to go diplomatically before we need to contemplate other measures. But it is a simple observation of reality that there is only one thing worse than a military solution, and that, my friends, is a nuclear armed Iran. The regime must understand that it cannot win a showdown with the world.”

McCain also said withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq would be a mistake.

“The situation in Iraq is very difficult, and the temptation is to wash our hands of a messy situation,” he said. “To follow this impulse, however, portends catastrophe, for Iraq, Israel and the United States.”

McCain said “a precipitous American withdrawal” risks “all-out civil war and the emergence of a failed state in the heart of the Middle East, inviting intervention from Iraq’s neighbors and the potential for region-wide conflict.”

“We must do all in our power to prevail,” he said.

McCain said he is encouraged by recent talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas. “We also must ensure that Israel’s people can live in safety until a Palestinian leadership truly committed to peace emerges,” he added. “No moral nation–neither Israel nor America–can allow terrorists to chart the political course of its people.”

“And to speak of terrorism is also to speak of Hezbollah,” McCain continued. “Israel’s chance for enduring peace with Lebanon resides in a government that has a monopoly on authority within its country. That means no independent militias, no Hezbollah fighters, no weapons and equipment flowing to Hezbollah. Yet neither the Lebanese Army nor the international force there is prepared or willing to take on Hezbollah. So long as that is the case, the current pause is likely to enable Hezbollah to regroup, reconstitute and rearm. There is one bottom line: to achieve lasting peace, sooner or later, one way or another, Hezbollah must be disarmed.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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