GOP presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain said in a Web interview last week that he misspoke when he said recently he is “an active member” of a Southern Baptist church in Arizona and has been for years.
While campaigning in South Carolina, McCain corrected a reporter’s question about his Episcopalian faith by saying he is a Baptist and that he and his wife had been members of North Phoenix Baptist Church for more than 15 years. The candidate said his religious affiliation is “well known, because I’m an active member of the church.”
That comment sparked speculation when coupled with another comment by McCain that he had not been baptized by immersion, a rite required by the vast majority of Baptist churches for full inclusion into membership. McCain reportedly said he didn’t find it necessary for his spiritual needs, and his pastor told him there was no need for him to be baptized in order to be a church member.
Officials at the church didn’t respond to questions about McCain’s membership claims. In an interview posted late last week on the religion Web site BeliefNet, however, McCain, attributed the confusion to “one comment, on the bus, after hours.”
“What I meant to say is that I practice–I am a Christian–and I attend a Baptist church,” McCain said. “I’m very aware that immersion–as my wife, Cindy, has done–is necessary to be considered a Baptist. So my comment is and my statement is: I was raised Episcopalian. I have attended the North Phoenix Baptist Church for many years, and I’m a Christian.”
Asked why he hasn’t taken the plunge of believer’s baptism, McCain told BeliefNet he is discussing it with Dan Yeary, pastor at North Phoenix Baptist Church for 13 years, but it probably wouldn’t happen during a political campaign.
“I’m in conversations with Pastor Yeary about it, as short a time ago as last week,” McCain said. “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 has been working for months to reach out to Christian conservatives, viewed as a key Republican voting bloc that views him with suspicion. In 2000 McCain lashed out at two of the movement’s leaders, denouncing Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as “agents of intolerance” and “corrupting influences on religion and politics.”
Broadcaster James Dobson said he wouldn’t vote for McCain because he’s against a constitutional ban on gay marriage, and a campaign-finance reform bill McCain co-sponsored in 2002 would muzzle religious broadcasters from speaking out on politics.
In July McCain spoke to a Christian Zionist gathering in Washington spearheaded by preacher and author John Hagee. He gave a commencement address at Falwell’s Liberty University in 2006.
Candidates’ personal faith took center stage early in the current GOP race, when questions arose about whether former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, can win votes from evangelicals who don’t view his church as belonging to Christianity.
McCain told BeliefNet he believes Romney’s religion “should not, absolutely, be a disqualifying factor when people consider his candidacy for president of the United States.” McCain did say, however, that he personally would have a hard time voting for a Muslim for president.
Anticipation that Fred Thompson’s entry into the race might provide a clear standard-bearer for the Christian Right floundered when the former U.S. senator and actor said off the bat he doesn’t attend church regularly and probably wouldn’t use a lot of God-talk on the campaign trail.
Interviewing McCain for BeliefNet, a spirituality Web site started in 1999, was Dan Gilgoff, a writer for U.S. News & World Report who in March quoted Dobson as throwing cold water on a Thompson candidacy by saying he did not believe Thompson is a Christian.
Thompson’s campaign responded that he was baptized into the Church of Christ, prompting a round of investigation by Church of Christ sources that found little record of church involvement.
Southern Baptist Convention leader Richard Land told an EthicsDaily.com reporter in early September that “when he’s in town,” Thompson attends a Presbyterian Church in the Washington area with his wife, who is a “very regular attender.”
The candidate contradicted that story, when Thompson said he isn’t a member of a church at his home in northern Virginia. “I attend church when I’m in Tennessee,” he told reporters. “I’m in McLean right now. I don’t attend regularly when I’m up there.”
Land appeared to back away from his earlier statement in a conversation with CBN’s David Brody, defending Thompson from a more-recent attack from Dobson. “[D]o I wish that he attended church every Sunday?” Land said. “As a Baptist pastor, of course I do. But does that make him a person of unbelief? That’s harsh and unwarranted.”
Also in the BeliefNet interview, McCain said he, like a majority of Americans, according to a recent poll, believes the United States Constitution establishes a Christian nation.
“I would probably have to say yes that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation,” McCain said. “But I say that, again, in the broadest sense. The lady that holds her lamp beside the golden door doesn’t say ‘I only welcome Christians,’ OK? We welcome the poor, the tired, the huddled masses. But when they come here they should, they know that they are in a nation founded on Christian principles.”
McCain said he wouldn’t agree with some who call the separation of church and state a “myth.”
“I think that the founding fathers believed in the separation of church and state, and they state it unequivocally, but they also continued to emphasize the Christian principle–in God we trust, we are created equal,” he said. “Every statement that they made had to do with the belief in a divine Creator. So they didn’t mean, in my view, separation of church and state, that there’s no place for God or a superior being and creator, in our discourse and our lives.”
Asked what the notion of America being a Christian nation meant to the possibility of a Muslim running for president, McCain responded:
“I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles–that’s a decision the American people would make–but personally, I’d prefer someone I know that has a solid grounding in my faith. That doesn’t mean that I’m sure that someone who is Muslim would not make a good president. I just feel that my faith is probably of better spiritual guidance. I don’t say that we would rule out under any circumstances someone of a different faith. I just feel that’s an important part of our qualifications to lead.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.