Who Will Be This Year’s John McCain?

[This post is part of the conversation around the new book, Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide, now featured at the Patheos Book Club.]

I just finished watching the HBO movie “Game Change,” which gives one perspective on the selection of Sarah Palin for the GOP vice-presidential slot in the 2008 McCain campaign.  Those on the political right seem to be convinced the movie was too hard on Palin; those on the political left are sure it was too easy on her.  It’s an interesting debate, but not one I want to have here.  Instead, I want to draw attention to a scene that comes very late in the movie, one which corresponds to real events from early October in 2008.  In a town hall meeting in Lakeville, Minnesota, McCain took the microphone from a supporter who had referenced then Senator Obama as an Arab.  After taking it, he responded, “No, ma’am. No, ma’am.  He’s a decent family man, a citizen whom I just happen to have serious differences with on fundamental questions.”  Rather than attempting further to exploit divisive and inaccurate partisan bickering, McCain sought to refocus the discussion.  The question was not who was a “real American,” but rather a question of ideas and policies and that’s where the discussion belonged.

Evidences indicate that this election cycle is going to be remarkably vicious, even by today’s political standards.  So, when it comes to the inevitable partisan attacks that those on the “other” side are not “really Christian,” who will imitate McCain?  To this point, the signs have not been encouraging.  While the President has yet to really start campaigning, the Republican primary has already brought out the charges as to who is and who is not really a follower of Jesus.  Santorum has already dubbed the President’s faith at least substandard, indicating that he has a “phony theology.”  Franklin Graham indicated his doubts about the President’s faith and considers Mitt Romney, being Mormon and all, not really a Christian. Other religious leaders have already tried to tell us the range of candidates we can support as Christians, presumably because only those on the list are real Christians. Never mind that the list also just happened to match their own political preferences.  Convenient, that, how only those on “our” side are “really Christian.”  Of course, we can expect it only to get worse.

Also, late in the movie, Game Change, there was an interesting exchange between a couple of characters as they observed how easily the crowds were whipped up to treat their rival as “other.”  “There is a dark side to American politics.”  By that, they meant that the willingness to completely abandon civility and respond to a campaign with our basest and most fearful emotions is never very far.  That dark side is easily unleashed, and once unleashed, remarkably hard to get back under control.  It took a statesman to do that in the last election.  McCain had to take the microphone and indicate that he was not going to let the campaign deteriorate into the kind of name calling we noted above.  Will there be a John McCain-like figure this time?  One who will step up, one who has the credentials as a statesman, and simply say, “No, no, the campaign is not about disrespecting each other as Christian sisters and brothers, which in fact, we are.  We do, however, have serious policy disagreements, and we are going to stay focused on them for our debates.”  On the one hand, I hope there is such a statesman; on the other, he hasn’t shown up yet.

Dr. Charles (Chuck) Gutenson is Chief Operating Officer of Sojourners. He previously served 10 years at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, most recently as the professor of Theology and Philosophy. Chuck is the author of three books and numerous articles on a variety of theological and philosophical articles.

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