When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) passed away on Saturday evening, he saw in person the God to whom he had prayed for five and a half years in a Vietnamese prison camp. McCain’s faith in God sustained him during the darkest part of his life.
McCain was a war hero because when the North Vietnamese offered him unconditional release less than a year after his Navy bomber was shot down, he refused, demanding that the Vietnamese release American prisoners who had been captive longer than he. Badly crippled from his crash, McCain embraced torture and more than two years in solitary confinement rather than break the POW honor code.
The Vietnamese starved him and beat him, he suffered dysentery, and his body was permanently scarred by his injuries and the beatings. McCain, a lifelong Episcopalian who attended an evangelical Baptist church, found his strength in prayer.
“Three things kept me going,” McCain told PEOPLE magazine in 1992. “Faith in God, faith in my fellow prisoners and faith in my country.”
“There were times when I didn’t pray for one more day or one more hour, but I prayed for one more minute,” McCain told the Christian Science Monitor‘s Linda Feldmann in 2007. “So I have very little doubt that it was reliance on someone stronger than me that not only got me through, but got me through honorably.”
In a long first-hand account he wrote for U.S. News and World Report, McCain recalled, “I was finding that prayer helped. It wasn’t a question of asking for superhuman strength or for God to strike the North Vietnamese dead. It was asking for moral and physical courage, for guidance and wisdom to do the right thing.”
“I asked for comfort when I was in pain, and sometimes I received relief. I was sustained in many times of trial,” the former POW recalled. Indeed, the American soldier experienced two potentially miraculous events in the Vietnamese prison.
While in solitary confinement, McCain would be left for the night with his arms tied back in a painful position. One night, a guard walked in and loosened the ropes, then came back five hours later and tightened the ropes again. The American soldier did not know why the guard gave him this moment of reprieve.
Two months later, on Christmas Day, McCain stood outside for 10 minutes, and the same guard came up to him. The guard stood by him, then drew a cross in the dirt with his sandal, looking at McCain. Then the guard erased the cross, and walked away.
“My friends, I will never forget that man,” McCain said in a town hall meeting with voters in 2007. “I will never forget that moment. And I will never forget the fact that no matter where you are, no matter how difficult things are, there’s always going to be someone of your faith and your belief and your devotion to your fellow man who will pick you up and help you out and bring you through.”
In his book “Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir,” McCain recalled another minor miracle. He felt God’s love and providence when he discovered the words “I believe in God, the Father Almighty,” the first seven words of the Apostles’ Creed, scratched into a cell wall.
In solitary confinement, McCain wrote that he “prayed more often and more fervently than I ever had as a free man.”
As the war drew near to a close, the North Vietnamese dialed back the torture and put the POWs together in a room. The prisoners organized Sunday church services, and McCain became the chaplain, “not because the senior ranking officer thought I was imbued with any particular extra brand of religion, but because I knew all of the words of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed,” he later told the Christian Science Monitor.
The American prisoner conducted services and gave improvised sermons. “It was a topic, a talk,” he recalled. “We had a choir that was marvelous… The guy who directed it happened to have been previously the director of the Air Force Academy choir.”
Before the first Christmas after they were allowed to have services together, the Vietnamese gave McCain a King James Bible, a piece of paper, and a pencil. “On Christmas Eve, the first time we had been together — some guys had been there as long as seven years — we had our service,” he recalled.
“We got to the point where we talked about the birth of Christ, and then sang ‘Silent Night,’ and I still remember looking at the faces of those guys — skinny, warn out — but most of them, a lot of them, had tears down their faces,” McCain said. “And they weren’t sorrow, they were happiness that for the first time in so many years we were able to worship together.”
McCain was not the most stalwart champion of the Religious Right. He opposed abortion, but not as vocally. In his later years, he opposed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Arizona, bowing to LGBT activists rather than protecting freedom of conscience in allowing people to opt out of serving events like same-sex weddings.
Nevertheless, there can be no doubt of McCain’s patriotism and of his faith in Jesus Christ. A man who prays and preaches in prison — leaning on God for strength, minute by minute — is not just a Christian, but a hero.
Follow the author of this article on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.