Republican presidential hopeful John McCain sparked outcries from Jewish organizations this week, after saying in an interview that he would rather see America led by a Christian, and that "the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation."
Asked if a Muslim candidate could be a good president, McCain replied, "I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles ... personally, I prefer someone who I know who has a solid grounding in my faith,"
In what was probably intended as a recovery, McCain added in the interview with Beliefnet.com: "But that doesn't mean that I'm sure that someone who is Muslim would not make a good president."
The video interview, which first appeared on Saturday, stirred strongly negative responses from American Jewish figures.
"Senator McCain's statements were disappointing and disturbing to say the least," wrote Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham H. Foxman in a letter to McCain.
"We would have thought that a senator as experienced and respected as John McCain would place himself above such divisive appeals to religious intolerance."
Foxman asked McCain to withdraw his "inaccurate and ill-advised" remarks.
The American Jewish Committee was also quick to weigh in. "To argue that America is a Christian nation, or that persons of a particular faith should by reason of their faith not seek high office, puts the very character of our country at stake," said American Jewish Committee general counsel Jeffrey Sinensky.
Hogwash. Every Jewish kid in America who has ever worn a kippah in public, every Muslim who has worn external evidence of his or her devotion to Islam, knows very well that Senator McCain was right. Every public school child who was raised in a home where Jesus was not believed to be God, and who was made to sing "Joy to the world, the Lord is come!" with devotion and feeling, knows just how right McCain was. Every high school football player who began every game hearing an invocation to the Lord Jesus Christ, cannot help but wonder what all the fuss is about.
You don't have to look very far afield for corroboration. Witness McCain's predecessor in the Senate and as a presidential candidate, Barry Morris Goldwater, whose family name was an adaptation of the original Goldwasser. "Although Jewish on his father's side, Mr. Goldwater was raised in the Episcopalian tradition of his mother," the Washington Post wrote in a 1998 obituary.
"Neither my father nor any of our family ever took any part in the Jewish community," Goldwater wrote in an autobiography. We never felt or talked about being half-Jewish since my mother took us to the Episcopal church. It was only on entering the power circles of Washington that I was reminded I was a Jew. I never got used to being singled out in that way. My answer was always the same.
"I'm proud of my ancestors and heritage. I've simply never practiced the Jewish faith or seen myself or our family primarily of the Jewish culture. In the jargon of today's sociologist, we've been assimilated. We're American."
In a reference to Goldwater's run for the presidency, the American Jewish social commentator Harry Golden once observed, "I have always thought that if a Jew ever became President, he would turn out to be an Episcopalian."
It is fair to say that America zealously guards certain separations of church and state. But it also turns a blind blue eye to others.
So deeply ingrained is the concept of a Christian basis for the American nation, that even when McCain actively embarked on damage control during a campaign swing in New Hampshire, his statement, that the most qualified person could be president, no matter his or her religion, landed poorly:
"It's almost Talmudic," McCain said. "We are a nation that was based on Judeo-Christian values. That means respect for all of human rights and dignity. That's my principle values and ideas, and that's what I think motivated our founding fathers."
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