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John McCain: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Remember Who I Was

Senator John McCain of Arizona stands at the epicenter of the controversy surrounding the repeal of Congress’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and everyone from Jon Stewart, to Cindy McCain (at least prior to her most recent tweet), is giving the old sailor some guff.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the ghost of Barry Goldwater, McCain’s mentor, was spooking one of the senator’s many mansions, dragging symbolic chains, and intoning libertarian mantras in a haunting falsetto.

Viewed in the broader context of McCain’s lengthy political career, his willingness to throw his body over a rolling grenade in defense of the Conservative Christian agenda is both ironic and significant for understanding Faith and Values politicking in the next few years.

First, the irony. The senator’s intervention would have been unthinkable just a little while back. To the best of my knowledge McCain is one of the only major Republicans of the post-Reagan era to ever publicly take on the Christian Right.

"Really? I said that?"

I take you back to the aftermath of the 2000 GOP primary in South Carolina where McCain railed against Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as “agents of intolerance” and “forces of evil” (McCain was incensed, apparently, over being the victim of a smear campaign run by Conservative Christian operatives who insinuated he had fathered an illegitimate child).

In truth, McCain’s difficulties with Conservative Christians went back even further. He had rumbled with them over the confirmation hearings of his close friend John Tower, nominated by George H.W. Bush for Secretary of Defense in 1989. Tower was sacked pretty viciously, even by Washington standards.

Payback came in the 2003 Worth the Fighting For: The Education of An American Maverick and the Heroes Who Inspired Him. There, McCain skewered Paul Weyrich, one of the Bad Boys of the Christian Right and one of Tower’s leading detractors.

McCain, showing off some passable creative writing skills, described  him as a “Dickensian villain,” “Corpulent and dyspeptic.” “[Weyrich's] moral certitude,” wrote McCain, “left little room for the basic rules of behavior that secular politicians, sinners though we surely are, feel obliged to respect.”

I feel obliged to stress this point: in 2003, at least, John McCain saw himself as a “secular politician.” By 2007 he gave up the ghost, proclaimed America a “Christian Nation” and let bygones be bygones.

And so it goes in an America where secularism is increasingly becoming an unspeakable word. I’ll get to that in due course, though I want to be clear that many of secularism’s most unprincipled critics are teaching on your campus. But I am divigating.

For now I want to note that the sheer doggedness of the senator’s opposition to the repeal of DADT needs to be thought about carefully.

My question is: why does McCain want to fight this fight? Why prolong a losing battle which sets him against the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, popular opinion, 70% of active and non-active duty personnel (if recent reports are correct) and—permit me to editorialize—common sense and common decency?

One possible answer is the old “because someone said that God said so!” The someones in question would be the usual suspects. That the Senator and the GOP in general feel the need to placate the “Christian base” until the general election seems like an obvious explanation for McCain’s last stand.

That base is clearly opposed to the repeal of DADT. If I can forecast arguments that you will be hearing more about in the future get ready for a “religious liberty” angle.

It will be claimed that a military chaplain opposed to homosexuality will not be able to express that sentiment in his or her pastoral work. It will also be alleged that a cleric may be forced to minister to a gay person, or engage in some such action that is, apparently, beyond the pale for servants of a good and gracious God.

In any case, let me close by saying that even though I often disagreed with John McCain’s political positions I always thought the man was kind of simpatico. He was a war hero, a salty sea dog with a terrible temper, and a likable iconoclast. He was a strange mix–a non-conformist who upheld “traditional” American values.

Too, he once was a secular politician, a Republican secular politician. Now Republicans and even Democrats of that ilk are increasingly difficult to find.

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