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The Gospel of Chaplain John

Author: Michael J. Gerson, Roger Hertog Senior Fellow
August 30, 2008



When John McCain was chosen as one of three chaplains during his Vietnam captivity, it seemed slightly ridiculous, especially to him. He had been a wild child at the Naval Academy and was prone to defying his captors by “uplifting his center finger” and uttering “the oath that is commonly associated with that gesture,” as one observer has delicately related.

“I would like to tell you that I was selected to be room chaplain because I had an abundance of religiosity,” McCain explained in an interview last year with Beliefnet. He was chosen instead because he had attended an Episcopal high school and knew the Christian liturgy by heart. “So I had an ability to lead a church service.”

But it turned out to be a formative experience for McCain: “I’ll never forget that first Christmas when I … read from the Nativity story … And I looked in that room around and there were guys who had already been there for seven years and tears were streaming down their face, not out of sorrow, but out of joy that for the first time in all that captivity, we could celebrate the birth of Christ together.”

Once again John McCain is being forced—unwillingly and only partially prepared—into a position of religious leadership. Many Americans expect their nominee to talk about his or her faith openly and fluently. Though America is not a “Christian nation” either in fact or intention, the president has always played a role of nonsectarian, priestly comfort, especially in times of mourning and crisis.

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