A memorial service for Sen. John McCain – the former POW, three-decade senator from Arizona and two-time presidential candidate who died Aug 25 from brain cancer – is scheduled this week at a Southern Baptist megachurch that he attended for years.
Thursday’s celebration of life service at North Phoenix Baptist Church is one of a series of events scheduled this week in Arizona and in Washington, D.C., honoring the moderate Republican often labeled a “maverick” for his willingness to stand up against members of his own party.
A lifelong Episcopalian, McCain and his current wife, Cindy McCain, began attending services with their children at the congregation affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 1990s.
Their pastor at the time, Richard Jackson — the moderate candidate for SBC president who narrowly lost to the “conservative resurgence” standard-bearer Jerry Vines in 1988 – baptized Cindy McCain in 1991. The senator reportedly discussed baptism and church membership with Jackson but at the time decided to remain an Episcopalian.
McCain’s religious affiliation became an issue when he ran for president in 2008, after he corrected a reporter who asked him how his Episcopal faith played a role in his campaign and life. “I’m not Episcopalian. I’m Baptist,” McCain said during a campaign stop in South Carolina.
The comment drew speculation when the candidate went on to describe himself as “an active member of the church” for more than 15 years, adding he had not been baptized by immersion – the standard rite of admission into the Baptist church — because he did not find it necessary for his spiritual needs.
McCain later said he misspoke. “What I meant to say is that I am a Christian, and I attend a Baptist church,” he said. “I’m very aware that immersion is necessary to be considered a Baptist. So my comment is and my statement is: I was raised an Episcopalian. I have attended the North Phoenix Baptist Church for many years, and I’m a Christian.”
McCain said at the time he was discussing the possibility of believer’s baptism with then-pastor Dan Yeary, but it probably wouldn’t happen during a political campaign.
The current pastor, Noe Garcia, joined the North Phoenix Baptist community in a statement mourning McCain’s passing. “Senator McCain was a man of courage and faith and he loved his family,” the statement said. “He and his wife Cindy have been part of the North Phoenix community for many years and we are committed to ministering and praying for them during this difficult time.”
Michael Curry, presiding bishop and primate for The Episcopal Church, called McCain’s life “a witness to the nobility of living not for self alone but for the ideals and values that make for a better world.”
“With countless others, we of the Episcopal Church give God thanks for his life and service and pray likewise for his wife, children and family,” Curry said. “May his soul and the souls of all the departed Rest in Peace and rise in glory.”
Born on a naval base in Panama, McCain attended an Episcopal high school. He generally avoided talking about his faith, with exception of a Good Samaritan-kind of story he repeated from his more than five years as a prisoner of war.
One night after his captors had painfully bound McCain, a POW guard entered his room and silently loosened the ropes that pinned his head between his legs. Two months later, on Christmas Day, McCain was allowed to stand outside for 10 minutes in a courtyard, and the same guard came up to him. The guard stood beside him for a minute, then drew a cross in the dirt with his sandal and stood there looking at McCain without speaking. A few minutes later the guard rubbed the image out and walked away.
McCain had a harder time establishing rapport with fellow believers in the political sphere. In 2000 he lashed out at political opponents Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, calling them “agents of intolerance.”
“They are corrupting influences on religion and politics, and those who practice them in the name of religion or in the name of the Republican Party or in the name of America shame our faith, our party and our country,” McCain said during a campaign event in 2000.
McCain and Falwell made peace in 2006, when the senator was invited to deliver the commencement address at Liberty University. He won the GOP primary in 2008, despite the fact that most evangelical leaders preferred Mike Huckabee. Hoping to shore up his support among conservatives, he surprised everyone by choosing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate and ultimately losing to Barack Obama in the general election.
Thursday’s memorial service at North Phoenix Baptist Church is scheduled at 10 a.m. local time. Seating is limited and open only to those with a ticket, but it will be streamed online.