A Scholar Responds to John McCain: No God But Country

Kathryn Lofton’s recent analysis in these pages of John McCain’s religion (or lack thereof) provoked complex reactions in me (John McCain: No God But Country, Oct. 6). These are not exactly critical, because I certainly do not discount her article’s high interest and value. However, she has led me to reflect on the trade-offs involved in scholarly writing on religious politics, and to introduce a twist that may turn the discussion in a slightly different direction.

Much of the rich detail in Lofton’s article circles around three ideas: that McCain’s religion reduces largely to his personal dedication to a reified conception of the nation; that (for all the window-dressing and hypocrisy expected of politicians) his religion has little to do with what most people (whether scholars or ordinary believers) would call Christianity; and that the job of a scholar of religion is not to back any particular dog in the fight because we have heard all sides before and our job is to be objective.

At some levels it is a strength that Lofton mainly opts to let readers decide what to think about her evidence. I am glad that she does not employ a flat-footed debunking model, in which a scholar sets up a normative yardstick and tests his/her subject against it. True, there are times and places for old-style muckraking journalism—such as this recent Rolling Stone McCain exposé—but this is not the only thing we need, and it is not necessarily the best contribution of a religious studies scholar.

All this being said, one premise of my reflection is that the meaning of any cultural practice—in this case, McCain’s religion—is formed through dialogue (both explicit and implicit) with related practices. Making such dialogues explicit is often crucial for discovering the core meanings of an argument. And critical theory directs our attention to two implications: that the meaning of any statement is constituted by what is not being said, and that what matters is the practical difference it makes when something—such as religious-patriotic rhetoric—is articulated differently.

Lofton does a great job of exploring such subtle differences (sometimes discovered through silence) related to McCain’s negotiations with conservative Christianity. But we can extend this principle of dialogue more widely. We can think further about McCain’s civil religion versus other civil religions, such as the difference between McCain and Obama on “America,” or between McCain and John Kerry on how being a Christian and a Vietnam war hero fit together. As I will discuss below, it is especially interesting to relate this inquiry to scholarly work on Ronald Reagan.

Lofton notes that some Christians may feel that it matters that McCain is so shallow by usual Christian measures—although she herself has no dog in the fight. But more is at stake than McCain’s indifference about issues that Baptists or Episcopalians would call basic religious substance. We can also push closer to the heart of what McCain apparently does care about—his reified sense of the nation—and spell out the differences that matter in articulating what this “heart” is.

There is no need to posit one yardstick, in relation to which we can judge whether McCain falls short. Nevertheless, once we grasp that McCain cares about country more than Christianity, the problem of unpacking what he means by “country” still remains—and, let us recall, we are assuming that this meaning is constituted in dialogue with a wider range of civil religious positions. This includes the Baptist-Republicanism that can barely perceive tension between religion and nation—Lofton’s “good Christian men”—but it also includes many other religious people rooted outside the world of conservative Baptists, Episcopalians, and McCain-style neoconservatives. If Lofton turned more attention to such people—perhaps in another article, since we cannot do everything at once—they could emphatically spell out just how they see the tensions.

To some extent Lofton presupposes such people’s existence and hints at her sympathies with them. But it is not always easy to tell what she thinks. More pointedly, it is not easy to tell whether this reticence is a strength or weakness of her article. It bears repeating that there are trade-offs either way; different approaches can accomplish different worthy goals for different readers. Nevertheless, given the issues at stake in the current election and the huge gap in scholarly persuasiveness between some articulations of Christianity and others, this is a place where my own inclination would be to draw more critics out of the shadows and to give them space to twist their knives harder.

Whether Lofton had chosen to unleash her critical voice, or whether she had simply chosen to quote more “alternative dogs” in her capacity as neutral referee for this dogfight, she could have showcased sharper critique. Insofar as such voices came from Christian communities responding to McCain’s version of “faith,” they could take a righteous tone (“How dare he suggest that cutting the capital gains tax is a Christian position”) or a bemused one (“Foxes have holes, birds have nests, the Son of Man has no place to lay his head…and McCain can’t remember how many houses Cindy bought him.”) Coming from communities of patriots on the left or the right, they could express outrage (“How dare he claim to defend our nation by bankrupting it through a hundred more years of war?”) or, once again, bemusement (“Isn’t it ironic that ‘noun/verb/POW’ is all that counts for patriotism these days, and gives you a free pass to take bribes, lie to the press, pick an unqualified running mate, and so on?”)

Even scholars who aspire to neutrality can embrace the task of bringing underdogs out of the shadows; they can remind people about the non-American parts of Christianity, such as the large majority of world Christians who opposed the Iraq war from the outset. Moreover, is not Lofton a stakeholder in her country, a citizen of the world, and a caretaker of reasonable discourse in a postmodern media culture?

Victory Culture

My second comment starts from connecting the dots between two issues: McCain’s stress on his suffering as a POW and Tom Engelhardt’s analysis of how POW victimology functions in US cultural discourse, as diagnosed in his excellent book, The End of Victory Culture, which has recently been republished in an updated edition. I have a lover’s quarrel with this book because I wish it focused more on religion, though anyone who pays minimal attention can map religion onto its narrative.

Engelhardt diagnoses a paradigmatic narrative (“victory culture”) that shaped hegemonic US ideology after World War II. This narrative begins by highlighting unprovoked attacks on innocent and virtuous Americans, classically by “savage Indians” in Hollywood films and by “Japs” at Pearl Harbor in real life. Such experience of victimization gives true Americans the motivation and justification to mobilize for imperial slaughter (not recognized as such), which is satisfyingly accomplished by the final reel and/or the end of the war.

For Engelhardt, this narrative lost credibility during the Vietnam Era. Although it did not disappear, it could not be sustained as hegemonic; it remained in circulation with a question mark hovering over it, rather than as taken-for-granted conventional wisdom. Who were the good guys and bad guys in Vietnam? Moreover, as POWs came to play a prominent victim role in dominant discourse, they scrambled the script. Victims were supposed to be innocent; unprovoked attacks on them were supposed to be a prelude to and pretext for slaughtering enemies by the end of the story. Where does a pilot who was captured while bombing Vietnam fit into this model?

The resulting cognitive dissonance, linked to an underlying blend of felt entitlement and perceived victimhood, has been a major factor in post-Vietnam cultural discourses, both secular and religious. Of course after Reagan’s election and especially after 9/11 (when al Qaeda joined “savages” and “Japs” on a short list of villains) it became necessary to debate whether Republicans had successfully revived victory culture, or whether it merely limps along in what Engelhardt calls a “ghostly” afterlife, devoid of credibility. Either way, he clarifies the centrality of POW discourse to the unfolding drama.

All this is highly relevant to Lofton’s analysis of McCain and gives it a sobering resonance that makes me, for one, have mixed feelings about a scholarly stance that refuses to take sides in the debate. It also leads toward an additional thought that runs slightly against the grain of Lofton’s argument. From one perspective, it is not necessarily true that McCain’s narrative is difficult for a well-socialized US citizen to square with Christian thought and practice. McCain’s suffering (as crucifixion, with a hoped-for resurrection?) can be packaged as “Christ-like sacrifice” in some reasonably non-trivial sense.

Here it may be instructive to recall Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, in which Jesus himself was given surprisingly little to do except endure sadistic torture. For years, scholars have noted how Abraham Lincoln’s suffering was interpreted as quasi-redemptive in the register of national mythology. Michael Rogin has shown how Reagan and his handlers successfully extended this tradition to key moments in Reagan’s career, such as his near-assassination.

From this perspective, the puzzle about McCain’s religion is less what Lofton highlights—his apparent hypocrisy and the paper-thin content required of a “good Christian man.” The greater puzzle is how certain US Christians are able in full subjective sincerity to embrace an emotionally thick form of a quasi-Christian narrative of sacrifice and redemption—albeit a narrative that appears blasphemous and perverse from the perspective of many other religious people. Lofton implies some of this and may agree with even more. Still, it seems to me that if we approach her evidence from this angle, it creates an interesting shift in the balance between what she underlines and what remains in the shadows of her analysis.

In the end, Lofton offers a highly stimulating and insightful analysis of McCain. My goal has not been to take away from the richness of her explorations, but to expand their resonance. Building on her work, it may be useful to reflect further on the trade-offs entailed by her framing of the evidence—her stress on the ways McCain’s discourse of suffering as a POW distances him from Christian narratives as opposed to weaving him into Christian narratives, and her relative retreat from dramatizing (perhaps taking sides in) conflicts about what Christianity and country can and should mean.