At Saturday night’s event at Saddleback Church, John McCain told the largely evangelical audience a version of history that the religious right likes to believe: “Our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian values and principles.”
That is, to put it mildly, historically dubious — the nation was founded on the secular principles, as part of the separation of church and state — but it’s nevertheless a phrase McCain seems to be especially fond of lately.
On a frozen winter evening at a Town Hall meeting in a school in the Manchester, N.H., suburbs, John McCain expressed surprise and irritation with an intelligence report downplaying the threat of Iran’s nuclear program.
At the end of a long list of reasons to be suspicious of the Iranians, McCain declared: “And they sure don’t share our Judeo-Christian values.”
It seemed at the time to be an odd thing to say about a Muslim country. After all, even if there were no nuclear program, no oil, and no rabble-rousing president, Iran still wouldn’t have Judeo-Christian values. And it’s troubling to wonder if that alone would be a reason for suspicion.
Quite right. For McCain to characterize our hostility for a rival nation in such starkly religious terms reminds us that when it comes to foreign policy, McCain frequently doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
But it’s that phrase that continues to stand out. The Boston Globe dug around a bit and noticed that McCain references “Judeo-Christian values” all the time, when talking about policies as varied as the economy, immigration, and foreign policy.
McCain, the Globe noted, seems to use the term as a synonym for “American values.” That’s really not a good idea.
McCain’s view of American power harkens back to the World War II era, when the United States held the moral high ground as liberator. He is a staunch interventionist, both on humanitarian and national-security grounds.
To most of the world, especially in Muslim nations, there is an enormous difference between standing up for freedom and standing up for Judeo-Christian values, but McCain conflates the two. And sometimes, his use of the term seems more than accidental.
“This just wasn’t the elimination of a threat to Iraq - this was elimination of a threat to the West, part of this titanic struggle we are in between western Judeo-Christian values and principles and Islamic extremists,” McCain said in 2006, after the killing of Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
“The number one issue people should make [in the] selection of the president of the United States is, ‘Will this person carry on in the Judeo-Christian principled tradition that has made this nation the greatest experiment in the history of mankind?’ ” he told Beliefnet last year.
On Saturday, in arguing for a strong defense of Georgia in its struggles with Russia, McCain twice noted that Georgia is a Christian nation - perhaps to distinguish it from other crumbling pieces of the former Soviet Union that are Muslim, such as Chechnya and Azerbaijan.
Such comments may pass unnoticed by most American voters and may be reassuring to some religious Christians and Jews. They may even go over well with some secular Americans who are pleased that he is using more inclusive language than some members of the religious right.
But his repeated invocation of “Judeo-Christian values” is sure to stick in the ears of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and people of other non-Christian, non-Jewish faiths. And they’re sure to be asking themselves: Just what is McCain trying to tell us?