Sen. John McCain
Jewish groups have been swift to condemn Sen. John McCain’s statement last weekend that he would prefer a Christian president, but the head of Englewood-based Norpac said that the Republican presidential hopeful misspoke and his record has earned him some leeway.
"He corrected himself and supports the most qualified candidate," said Dr. Ben Chouake, Norpac’s president and a member of McCain’s finance committee. Reached in Israel on Tuesday, Chouake continued, "People misspeak. It’s not a good thing but it’s better that he corrected himself. People do sometimes say the wrong things."
In a recent interview with Beliefnet, McCain fielded a question about whether he would vote for a Muslim president. He replied, "I prefer someone who I know has a solid grounding in my faith" since "the Constitution established the United States as a Christian nation."
The interview, published Saturday, set off a furor that compelled the Arizona senator to clarify his statement on Sunday. While campaigning in New Hampshire, he said the most qualified person should be president, no matter his or her religion.
"It’s almost talmudic. We are a nation that was based on Judeo-Christian values. That means respect for all of human rights and dignity. That’s what I think motivated our founding fathers," McCain said.
Chouake sought to further clarify the senator’s statement by adding that he himself recognized that the U.S. Constitution was written with Christian values in mind, but while those values are not exclusive to Christianity, it is "historically accurate" to say the country was founded on Judeo-Christian values, Chouake said.
McCain "is more comfortable with someone grounded in those principles," and any candidate would give a similar affirmation if pressed, he added.
He noted that McCain supported Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut senator’s recent independent campaign. "He wants the most qualified person," Chouake said.
McCain’s spokesperson, Jill Hazelbaker, said in a statement Sunday, "The senator did not intend to assert that members of one religious faith or another have a greater claim to American citizenship over another."
While Chouake is willing to look past McCain’s gaffe, other Jewish leaders were not as understanding.
"Sen. McCain should recognize that America is a democratic and pluralistic society where there is no religious test for public office," said Jeffrey Sinensky, the American Jewish Committee’s general counsel. "To argue that America is a Christian nation, or that persons of a particular faith should by reason of their faith not seek high office, puts the very character of our country at stake."
Sinensky noted that the founding fathers created a government free of religious ties because they knew all too well about the dangers of a church-state union.
"It is no accident that the Constitution explicitly seeks to avoid favoring religion, much less a particular faith," Sinensky said.
The Anti-Defamation League had similar criticism for the senator.
"Sen. McCain’s statements were disappointing and disturbing to say the least," said Abraham H. Foxman, the ADL’s national director, in a statement on Monday. "We would have thought that a senator as experienced and respected as John McCain would place himself above such divisive appeals to religious intolerance. His remarks were inaccurate and ill-advised for any candidate seeking to lead a nation as religiously diverse as ours."
In light of the senator’s correction, Chouake does not expect the statement to impact heavily on McCain’s fundraising. Norpac has already collected $45,000 of $50,000 promised to McCain’s presidential campaign and Chouake does not anticipate any problems with the remaining $5,000."The key to McCain’s candidacy is his strength of character," Chouake said, acknowledging that McCain is a second-tier candidate, according to polls. "Do I think he has strength of character? The answer is yes."