WASHINGTON — In his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Arizona Sen. John McCain is reaching out to conservative Christians, and many of them want to know how much McCain reaches out to God.
McCain has written movingly of how his faith helped him survive 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, but he says little about the current role of religion in his life.
"I think it's something between me and my creator," McCain said in an interview with McClatchy Newspapers. "It's primarily a private issue rather than a public one. ... When I'm asked about it, I'll be glad to discuss it. I just don't bring it up."
But in an era in which the Republican Party has become heavily dependent on conservative evangelical Christian voters conditioned to eight years of overt faith talk from many GOP politicians, including President Bush, some want McCain to deliver a more open discussion of his faith. Even Democrats, long regarded as the more secular party, this year have seen its leading presidential candidates openly discuss the importance of their faith.
McCain "seems to have a difficulty in discussing it in terms that people relate to," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a leading conservative evangelical organization. "I think people want a sense of where someone stands in their relationship with the Lord. I think George Bush was able to do that in the way he communicated, using terms that evangelicals are familiar with."
Many who agree with McCain's comprehensive approach to an immigration overhaul, such as Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., routinely invoke biblical imperatives in defending their stance. McCain doesn't.
Perkins and Gary Bauer, both key players in advancing the Christian conservative agenda in Washington, said they knew virtually nothing about McCain's religious life.
Pressed on the issue in the interview, the normally garrulous McCain haltingly—"I just pray the way most people pray"—but convincingly described a rich and fulfilling spiritual life.
Learned in childhood. Deepened in Vietnam. Nourished today by a redemptive Baptist church, daily prayer, generally in the evening, sometimes holding hands with wife Cindy, occasionally reading a family Bible, always seeking "guidance, comfort and wisdom in almost every aspect of my life."
McCain was raised an Episcopalian in a family that "observed our faith openly and without reservation."
In his memoir "Faith of My Fathers," McCain recalled the religious model his father provided: "(He) was devout, although the demands of his (naval officer) profession sometimes made regular church-going difficult. ... My father didn't talk about God or the importance of religious devotion. He didn't proselytize. But he always kept with him a tattered, dog-eared prayer book, from which he would pray aloud for an hour, on his knees, twice a day."
Comparing his practices to his father's, McCain said ruefully, "I'm not as devout or as good."
McCain has for years attended North Phoenix Baptist Church in Arizona. The church has about 6,000 members and is part of the theologically conservative Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest evangelical denomination.
Cindy McCain and two of their children have been baptized in the church. McCain hasn't: "I didn't find it necessary to do so for my spiritual needs," he said.
McCain still calls himself an Episcopalian, but he said he began attending North Phoenix Baptist because he found "the message and fundamental nature more fulfilling than I did in the Episcopal church. ... They're great believers in redemption, and so am I."
"We encourage all our members to engage their world with their faith," said the Rev. Dick Stafford, the church's associate pastor. "That means they define the world they live, work and have a sphere of influence in, and try to live out an authentic faith in that environment. ... I think John's got an authentic faith. He has the same questions we all do about trying to find out what's right and living in accordance."
Marlene Elwell, a political activist who worked for McCain as a liaison to Christian conservatives until she left the campaign amid rancor a few weeks ago, nevertheless said she's convinced from conversations with McCain that he takes his church's mission to heart, prays regularly and "is a man of deep faith."
"There's a driving force that gives him a purpose in life greater than himself," Elwell said. "The greatest witness is how you live your own life."
McCain tiptoed near the subject on his campaign bus, saying, "I know this sounds schmaltzy and maudlin and everything like that. I'm not sure—have no idea—whether I'm intended to be president of the United States. But I know I'm being kept here for a reason, and that is to serve."
Gloria Haskins, a South Carolina state representative who's endorsed McCain, said she doesn't think his difficulty discussing his faith will hurt him with evangelical conservative voters, who make up at least a quarter of likely Iowa caucus-goers and more than half of South Carolina Republican primary voters, two key early voting states.
"I'd tell folks who would ask such questions of him to look to the Bible," Haskins said. "By his acts you shall know him. He has repeatedly shown a love of justice and mercy, which is a sign of someone with a deep, abiding faith and a love of God."
But while his reticence to talk openly of his faith may not hurt McCain politically, many observers said it certainly would help him if he did.
Given that his chief competitors for the Republican nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, aren't regarded as natural allies of Christian conservatives, "a positive religious proclamation would have a strong effect," said Don Aiesi, a political scientist at Furman University in South Carolina.
"They're looking for people who have faith that guides them in making decisions," agreed Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Christian Alliance.
McCain, told of that, pointed to his time as a prisoner of war, when a Vietnamese guard who had been kind to McCain etched a cross in the prison-yard dirt with his sandal one Christmas morning. The guard rubbed it out after the two had stared at it together for a minute or so.
The lesson has stayed with McCain ever since: "Wherever you are in the world, no matter how tough the situation is or how difficult, how despondent you are, there will be some way for your faith to lift you up and sustain you."