PHOENIX (ABP) — John McCain has a deep and personal Christian commitment despite his reluctance to speak publicly about it, according to the man the presumptive GOP presidential nominee claims as his pastor.
Dan Yeary, pastor of North Phoenix Baptist Church, described the Arizona senator and his wife, Cindy, as “very unobtrusive” people who don't seek special attention when they are able to come to worship. “They come in the side door. They're very pleasant. They talk to people. They're very approachable.”
But the man McCain calls “my family's pastor” said his relationship with the candidate has not been a particularly close one. Yeary said he's done the normal things a pastor would do for his most famous parishioner, but “no more than I would do for any church member” in the 7,000-strong congregation.
McCain, a lifelong Episcopalian, has been attending the Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated church in Phoenix for at least 17 years. But the candidate has neither officially joined the congregation nor been baptized, which among Baptists is a public event associated with profession of one's faith in Jesus. He has continued to list his faith as “Episcopal” in official congressional biographies.
But, the pastor said, lack of membership hasn't kept McCain from becoming deeply involved in the church. “I have a good relationship with John,” Yeary said, recounting their first in-depth conversation. “I respect him as a friend. He is a very courageous man. And he has a delightful sense of humor.”
Yeary has been reluctant to talk to the news media about the McCains or his relationship with them. He has turned down many media requests in order to protect his relationship with the family and their privacy. But he initiated an interview with Associated Baptist Press in an attempt to quell continued journalistic curiosity about McCain's faith, saying he trusts the independent national news organization's reputation for fairness.
McCain is a religious enigma to many reporters and observers because he does not fit squarely into the religio-political mold that many other Christian conservatives have in recent years.
Many prominent evangelicals have been mute on McCain, but radio personality James Dobson said flatly in February that he would not vote for the candidate or either of his potential Democratic rivals, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.
On the other side of the coin, many moderate Republicans and independents remain skeptical of McCain because he has courted two far-right evangelical leaders. The candidate endured some criticism in February, after San Antonio pastor and Christian Zionist leader John Hagee endorsed him. McCain's campaign issued a statement in which he distanced himself from the preacher's more controversial remarks without rejecting or repudiating the endorsement.
The senator has received less media scrutiny for a separate endorsement of his candidacy by Ohio pastor Rod Parsley. Parsley, who leads a charismatic multi-media empire, has been criticized for statements insisting Islam must be “destroyed” as well as denigrating gays, the separation of church and state and secularists.
But looking for clues to McCain's faith from his association with such religious endorsers would be misleading, according to Yeary. Specifically, the pastor said, Hagee and Parsley are not representative of McCain's Christianity.
Yeary, who said he is also a Republican, stopped short of endorsing McCain himself. Asked if he would throw his support behind the candidate, he responded with Solomonic nimbleness. “It is a privilege and an honor to be this close to a man I've learned to love, who has the potential to be a great president for our country,” he said. “I certainly am in favor of God's endorsement on his life.”
Asked if Christians should be pleased if McCain is the next president, Yeary said: “I will be pleased. I trust him. He will seek wise counsel, spiritual counsel. This man is devoted to his country — there's no maybe about it.”
But don't expect McCain to talk as easily about his faith as the current President Bush. In that regard, the candidate is more like Bush's father, who is also an Episcopalian.
While Southern Baptists have a reputation of comfort in speaking about their evangelical beliefs, Episcopalians are, by reputation, more reserved. McCain's style may be more a reflection of his Episcopal upbringing than his recent church affiliation.
“His personal history means he's not going to use ‘the language of Zion' ” to talk about his faith, Yeary said, referring to what some other commentators have termed “evangelicalese.” But, he noted, “a great understanding” of McCain's religious beliefs can come from reading the candidate's autobiography, Faith of Our Fathers.
Cindy McCain, meanwhile, is an official Baptist. She was baptized at the Phoenix church in 1991, two years before Yeary became pastor. The couple has attended faithfully since, the pastor said, as have their children — although they too have not joined or been baptized.
Yeary said McCain and then-pastor Richard Jackson had a conversation about membership and baptism when Cindy McCain joined the church. Yeary did not reveal details of that conversation but suggested McCain decided then he would retain his Episcopal identification.
“You have to be baptized by immersion to be a member [of North Phoenix],” Yeary said. “John and I have dialogued about that.” Yeary declined to give details but said conclusively, “John is an Episcopalian, and he and his family attend North Phoenix Baptist Church when he is in town.”
Neither McCain's Senate office nor his presidential campaign responded to an ABP reporter's request for clarification about why he has not chosen to join North Phoenix Baptist.
Yeary said he got to know the senator soon after becoming pastor at North Phoenix, which during the 1980s was one of the Southern Baptist Convention's most prominent congregations. In the early 1990s, Yeary interviewed McCain on videotape about his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for more than five years.
“He just came up and sat in my office for a good two hours and talked about how prayer and his faith sustained him in that setting,” Yeary recalled. “It was a wonderful day. From that moment on, John and I forged a friendship. It is not the kind where we talk every week or even every month. … [But] I would tell anyone who asks me it has been a privilege to serve as their pastor.”
Over the years, Yeary said, the McCain family has “called me at times of family challenge,” such as illnesses and hospitalizations. Yeary performed the funerals for both of Cindy McCain's parents. Her father was a wealthy beer magnate, serving as the West Coast distributor for Anheuser-Busch.
When Cindy McCain spoke at her father's funeral, Yeary said, he got a glimpse of her public role. “This lady would be a very poised, confident, effective first lady. Her testimony rang true,” he said.
“She is a classy lady,” he added. “She's always been very kind to me.”
One family issue that surfaced in McCain's first bid for the White House is the couple's adoption of a dark-skinned daughter. Bridget McCain became part of the family as an infant, after Cindy McCain found her at the late Mother Teresa's orphanage during a mission trip to Bangladesh. In the hotly contested 2000 South Carolina GOP primary, McCain's enemies infamously spread rumors that McCain had fathered an out-of-wedlock child with an African-American woman.
Yeary said the rumors were false and that the adoption “is completely innocent.”
Yeary, who has a reputation as a conciliator, carefully avoids hot-button religious issues that often dominate in politics. He said a recent article by the Reuters news agency that explored McCain's faith mischaracterized the pastor's position on homosexuality, making him sound like a “right-winger.”
“The reporter asked if I am accepting and affirming of homosexuality,” Yeary said. “I am accepting because we accept everyone. We accept all sinners. You're a sinner, I'm a sinner. Are we accepting of their lifestyle? No, because it's a biblical issue.”
The pastor is aware of a dozen or more gays who are members of North Phoenix Baptist. Yeary said he has told them they are welcome, but that he can't “encourage their lifestyle.”
If McCain is elected, Yeary could find himself serving as spiritual advisor to the president, a role that has launched other pastors into national prominence. But the minister downplays that possibility.
“I have had no conversation with him whatsoever about it,” Yeary said. But he added, “I would do anything he asked me to do. … Should I be allowed to serve him in any capacity, I would be happy to do that.”
Robert Marus contributed to this story.