Lessons In Christian Realism from the Life of John McCain

Lessons In Christian Realism from the Life of John McCain

Much has been and will be written in the coming days about Senator John McCain. McCain passed away on Saturday, August 25, 2018, from glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer; he was 81. The naval aviator, POW, congressman, senator, and two-time presidential candidate led a decades-long career in public service marked by a self-effacing sacrifice and a blunt demeanor which garnered him widespread praise and sporadic criticism. Throughout his career, he was simultaneously loved and hated by Republicans and Democrats alike, who gave him the frequent designation of “maverick,” an appellation he seemed to relish.

While many eulogies will be offered in the next days extolling his virtues and offering tribute to his laudable public service, there are some distinct characteristics that we at Providence wish to raise to the fore. As a journal of Christianity and American foreign policy, we wish to acknowledge the distinct contribution Sen. McCain made to the advancement of Christian virtues in the field of American foreign affairs and American foreign policy. 

Sen. McCain was notoriously close-hold concerning his faith. Reared an Episcopalian, and in his later years attending a Southern Baptist Church, he rarely made much publicly of his private devotions. Christians looking for a vocal articulator of Christian theology in the public square would have found and often did find the senator lacking. But what he lacked in rhetoric he made up for in deeds. His life was an implicit testament to a set of ideals which Christians interested in the public square would do well to remember. For the sake of brevity, we would offer these four as exemplars of Christian Realism in the life and work of John McCain. 

American Exceptionalism 

“America is our cause, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Her greatness is our hope; her strength is our protection; her ideals our greatest treasure; her prosperity, the promise we keep to our children, her goodness, the hope of mankind.” – New Hampshire Primary, 2008

McCain was frequently quoted on record as believing in and defending the concept of American exceptionalism. Few concepts raise the ire of pacifists and those of the liberal persuasion as much as that of American exceptionalism. In his last book, The Restless Wave, McCain continued to profess that American is “a country made of ideals, whose continued success is the hope of the world.” One of the reasons why exceptionalism is such a fraught concept is that it is often conflated with perfection. To proclaim America as exceptional, to her critics, is to somehow absolve her of her faults and blindly render her to history absent all judgment. American exceptionalism is just that, that it is an exception to the rule of history, and to its peers internationally, there is something distinct and worthy about America.

America isn’t exceptional because she is perfect. America is exceptional because she acknowledges her imperfections and strives to improve them. Few countries achieve this blessed transient state; too many settle too soon for the easy roads of corruption and despotism. McCain, who was imprisoned for five years for being an American, returned home in the 1970s a hero to some and a war criminal to others. And despite this disparate reaction, McCain still loved this country and displayed that love in unwavering service. John McCain was able to withstand the tension between America’s flaws and virtues. Virtues of justice and the belief that if these American virtues became commonplace across the globe, the world would be a better place. 

Such belief gives evidence to the conviction that there are absolute and objective truths that are worthy of our work and merit our defense. Such truths are rooted not in opinion but in revelation. We serve an exceptional God, who has revealed an exceptional truth, and when those truths surface in our country, we would do well to be their advocates and defenders. 

Transcendent Purpose

“But let us rememberlet us remember that our purpose is not ours alone. Our success is not an end in itself… My friends, I learned long ago that serving only one’s self is a petty and unsatisfying ambition. But serve a cause greater than self-interest and you will know a happiness far more sublime than the fleeting pleasure of fame and fortune.” – New Hampshire Primary 2008

One of McCain’s most common phrases had to do with service. Likely if there is a monument to his life at some point, this phrase will be etched in stone. It is unavoidable; we are all in service to something, and we have a choice as to what that something is; we can serve ourselves, or we can serve others. McCain’s point was always crystal clear: the key to happiness and joy and fulfillment of purpose was to serve others and serve a cause greater than our own self-interest. 

This concept is one of transcendent service. That there exists something beyond the here and now, something beyond the personal interest that begs for our allegiance and is worthy of our devotion. 

The greatest joy is to be found in serving others. This is an inherently Christian ideal, and it animates the concept of Christian realism. While we have unique interests, and explicit Christin ideals, Christians are called to lay down their lives if necessary for the fruitfulness of others. This gives evidence to the love that animates our action. No greater love has any man, than when he lays his life down for another. McCain was offered early release as a POW, but he chose to remain with his fellow captives and endure the torture of imprisonment. He was offered early release from public life following numerous defeats for higher office, but he chose to remain and serve. 

One of the greatest pieces of evidence to the success of this notion, that it is greater to serve something other than yourself, is to be found in the numerous accolades he is receiving upon his passing. No one misses an obelisk when it is removed from a city square, as it serves no purpose but to draw attention to itself. But when a central pillar is removed from a building, all that it has held up begins to bear the weight of its absence. Would that we all live lives of such significance. 

Meekness, Not Weakness

John McCain stood apart in the modern arena of politics by demonstrating his unwillingness to engage in the politics of personal destruction. He rarely returned insults that he received, and frequently was able to praise even his harshest critics and work with his ideological foes. This tendency was often critiqued by those within his own party as weakness. The current president often decried McCain’s reticence to engage, claiming that his way of bluster was better. 

It would take a special person lacking all historical context to read John McCain as being weak. He endured unconscionable horror at the hands of the Viet Cong, survived plane crashes, broken bones, and repeated torture, and emerged undaunted and optimistic about America and humanity. Such a narrative is not one of weakness. 

McCain displayed that rare and all too Christian virtue of meekness. When strength, conviction, and humility combine, they form the three-fold cord of meekness, which is not easily broken. The meek operate from a position of power. They are so confident in their rightness and the security of their cause that they need not denigrate those they oppose. They serve their principles in the long term by choosing not to violate those principles in the short term. Time and again we see that when the boasters break upon the rocks of their pride, the meek remain. 

Cynical Optimism

“McCain was a romantic about his causes and a cynic about the world. He had the capacity to be both things and to live with the contradiction… He understood the world as it is with all its corruption and cruelty. But he thought it a moral failure to accept injustice as the inescapable tragedy of our fallen nature.” – Mark Salter, Washington Post

Christian Realism is a twofold proposition. It is a mode of thought which recognizes the value of distinct Christian virtues in foreign policy. It is also a worldview which calls its adherents to recognize the reality which confronts them in the world. It endeavors to see the world as it is, not merely as we would wish it to be. The world is a broken place, but its brokenness is not an excuse for our apathy. Rather, the brokenness of the world is a call to the image bearers of God to fulfill their mandate in creation, to administer his justice and “rule over every living thing.” 

John McCain exemplified this tension and this calling. He was a realist. He saw the world for what it was. In the past, this realism frequently put him at odds with idealistic liberals, and in recent times with disillusioned conservatives. Both groups in both times tended to see the world in optimistic terms. This tendency blinded them to the presences of true threats and schemes of legitimate enemies. As a realist, he recognized that freedom has enemies, evil is intractable, and that words alone are insufficient to dissuade evil men from evil acts. There are times when power must be employed, force must be used. But he recoiled from the notion that force was an end unto itself. What makes the use of the sword righteous is when it is used to administer justice. Christians would do well to adopt this view of the world, which sees that while threats exist, so too do the means to address those threats. So while we can be cynical about the world, we can remain optimistic in the outcome of history.  

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