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.
What John McCain said on the Beliefnet program was not quite in line with this orthodoxy. He recognized this almost immediately and took the opportunity to retrench. He resorted to the First Amendment parachute, which is that Congress shall make no law establishing religion, nor denying to anyone the free practice thereof.
Analyses have been written, but not I think pondered by civil servants, that one way to ignore religion is to deprive it of singular meaning. When the Mormons decided in the 19th century that polygamy was required by their religion, prosecutors in various places worked to stamp out the practice. But as time went on, interest in the remaining polygamists died down -- at least until a Mormon, Mitt Romney, declared for president.
It is all very well for Sen. McCain to say that he would have no problem voting for a Muslim for president if he or she was the best candidate. Surely qualifications need to be placed on such effusions of equality. Would it violate the First Amendment for a state to ordain that any Muslim running for public office would have to endorse votes for women? Would have to abjure the commandment that any Muslim defector be executed?
Christianity is supposed to be a way of life, and it was a way of life that Sen. McCain initially spoke of in his Beliefnet interview. Islam is a way of life -- there is nothing in Islam excepting a way of life. We're at about the point when Christians have to admit that we were there when they crucified Our Lord.