Pity John McCain, for whom everything has gone sour in the past period, taking him from lead candidate for the Republican nomination to the cellar. Some years ago, after hearing what John McCain withstood in North Vietnam, I pledged never to write a negative word about him, and over the years it has required very few beads of charity to stand by him. His latest difficulty started out sounding worthy of another medal of honor, to wear alongside the one he earned through the efforts of the North Vietnamese torturers.
What happened was that Sen. McCain was a guest on the Web site Beliefnet.com. He was there to answer questions about his religious beliefs, and his answers were recorded on video and are available for those who seek to examine the gods of presidential candidates.
The interviewer started off by asking: How important should religious belief be in a U.S. presidential contest?
Well, answered the senator, "I think the No. 1 issue people should make (in the) selection of the president of the United States is, 'Will this person carry on in the Judeo-Christian principled tradition that has made this nation the greatest experiment in the history of mankind?'"
When asked specifically about a Muslim candidate, he said: "I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles ... personally, I prefer someone who I know has a solid grounding in my faith."
Gasp. Within one day, poor Sen. McCain had called the Beliefnet people back and said he needed to amplify his answers to yesterday's questions. Now he added: "I would vote for a Muslim if he or she was the candidate best able to lead the country and defend our political values."
That was fast going but not fast enough.
What is happening is the reification of a civic conflict of the most fundamental order. We have for many years, in the talkative corners of the world, pretty much agreed not to emphasize in public the distinctive qualities of our own faith. The implication is that, just to begin with, there are no (important) differences between Protestants and Catholics. For reasons bloodily baptized in World War II, we threw in the Jews -- no differences, really. This didn't mean that there could not be a survival of Jewish theology, or seminaries devoted to explaining and glorifying the Dominican understanding of the deity. But it was saying something on the order of: We pledge the freedom of religious practice and admire those institutions working along similar lines to our own.