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McCain's faith: "I pray regularly"

cover image

A candidate's religion

March 7, 2000
Web posted at: 2:21 p.m. EST (1921 GMT)

The 10-minute tape is hardly clandestine, but it's not in heavy news rotation either. Two silver-haired men chat in a cozy office. Dan Yeary, pastor of the North Phoenix Baptist Church, calls it "a blessing" to include his companion "in our family and our fellowship." He asks if they might talk about prayer.

"Sure," says John McCain. He explains that at the Hanoi Hilton "those of us who gained our spiritual help and strength through God seemed to do better physically than those who basically gave up." Then he describes his practice now. "I pray regularly, and I don't have to be getting ready for bed, to be getting up in the morning. I seize opportunities throughout the day." He often prays in thanks for a full life, he says. "I haven't always succeeded; I've failed many times. But because the foundation of your and my belief is redemption, I've been able to receive additional comfort, strength and the desire to move forward again."

Such talk, taped in 1998 for internal church use, would be no surprise from George W. Bush or Al Gore. But from McCain, who has remained discreet about his current faith while waging one of the more religiously contentious primary runs in history, it is revealing. His close relationship with Yeary's church is unknown even to many Phoenix politicos and pastors.

McCain's great-grandfather was an Episcopal minister, and his father prayed twice daily--on his knees. Despite McCain's Episcopal heritage, however, the service he attends--"every time he's in town; John is faithful in worship," says Yeary--is the 9 a.m. Sunday "contemporary" gathering at North Phoenix Baptist. The megachurch is part of the Southern Baptist Convention. More moderate than Bob Jones University, the S.B.C. is still scripturally and socially conservative. One prominent member is McCain target Jerry Falwell.

McCain began attending Baptist services in Tempe, Ariz., before moving to Phoenix. "I just liked the church," he says. The four youngest McCain children are Baptists. Still, McCain maintains his Episcopalianism. Richard Jackson, pastor emeritus of North Phoenix, is not bothered. "I'm concerned about a person's relationship with Christ," he says, "and I was convinced he had that personal faith." McCain, he judges, "is not a biblically versed, mature Christian. He's a novice scripturally. But the Hanoi Hilton is not a seminary."

"I don't go [to church] as much as I would like," McCain told TIME. When he and his wife Cindy do attend, they usually sit behind the youth section, where they can get in and out unobtrusively. "He does not seek attention," says Yeary. "If I tried to recognize him, he might chastise me." Arizona Congressman J.D. Hayworth, a former North Phoenix member who has prayed with McCain, contends that the candidate's trademark candor extends to his faith. "You read the Psalms, you see how David is brutally honest with God," he says. "That's John. He doesn't keep anything from the Creator any more than from the rest of us."

--By David Van Biema. With reporting by John F. Dickerson, with McCain

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Cover Date: March 13, 2000

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