John McCain is holding his 101st town hall meeting in New Hampshire, and at the back of the school gym, Lebanon's deputy mayor mutters that he has never seen a turnout this big in his community. McCain volleys back questions with the ease that practice brings. Then someone asks about the candidate's values. This time the answer is less immediate.
McCain pauses, paces slowly; his multiple shadows slide across the giant national flag that hangs behind the stage. "Duty, honor, country," he says finally. Then he adds that this is what Vietnam taught him. There is no value higher than sacrifice and service. There is nothing greater than heroism.
McCain's patriotic appeal, which may hand him victory in New Hampshire, is at once obvious and surprising. Obvious because it plays on McCain's own heroism and also provides him a segue to his favorite subjects. A patriot will not tolerate a corrupt campaign system that dishonors the nation's leadership. A patriot will not abide a foreign policy that squanders the nation's international credibility.
But McCain's patriotic appeal is also surprising, because it contains a brand of spiritualism rare in politics. He is not just saying that sacrifice is good for the nation; he is saying that it is good for the individual who offers the sacrifice as well. "It builds character," he insists bluntly, and his autobiography suggests that he actually believes much more than that. In one passage McCain recalls being thrown into a cell after a harsh interrogation: "I felt God's love and care more vividly than I would have felt it had I been safe among a pious congregation," he writes of the experience.
George W. Bush talks of Christ the friendly redeemer: He comes into your heart one day and turns your life away from alcohol. McCain is talking about something much less cozy. He is talking about faith found at the hands of torturers. He is saying that redemption comes through suffering. He is invoking Christ upon the cross.
McCain's kind of religion is not obviously in tune with the feel-good optimism that dominates the campaign trail: The voters are used to candidates' professions of religiosity, but they don't want to be told to suffer. Moreover, McCain's faith seems in tension with the national mood in other ways also. Time and again on the campaign trail, he calls upon listeners to devote themselves to causes greater than their own self-interest. But precisely by dint of rampant individualism Americans have created the most dynamic economy in the world.
Occasionally this tension pops up in conversation. One moment McCain is saying that service to the nation deepens character; the next he is worrying that the leaders of the high-tech revolution lack that experience. At a town hall meeting in Plymouth, a questioner objects that privatizing Social Security would hand vast profits to Wall Street. "I share your hatred of Wall Street," he jokes back.
During his time in the Senate, McCain has pushed for deregulation: He clearly believes that the profit motive advances the national good. But it is just as clear that this is not what he believes most deeply. He reserves his passion for the nonprofit motive. He is the son and grandson of admirals, and has inherited their mind-set. "Faith of My Fathers" is the title of his book.
You could argue that there is nothing odd about McCain's spiritual patriotism, even in this age of free-market triumph. After all, acquisitive individualism has always existed alongside anxious reactions to it. America is the land of corporate buccaneers but also of community volunteers, of high-pitched anti-tax indignation and high rates of charitable giving. In politics especially, pure appeals to free markets and self-interest have seldom been successful, whereas soldier-politicians have often prospered. Entrepreneurs such as Wendell Wilkie and Ross Perot fizzled; but Dwight Eisenhower got elected; and Colin Powell might have.
You could argue, if you took just one step further, that bubbling prosperity actually makes McCain's candidacy natural. The stronger the material boom, the stronger the reaction to it; the more the real experience of war fades from memory, the more moviegoers flock to "Private Ryan." At the turn of the century, a reaction against industrial-revolution prosperity, together with the fading of Civil War memories, propelled Teddy Roosevelt to prominence. It is no coincidence that TR is McCain's hero.
You could argue these things, and yet the odds would be against you. It is hard to believe that calls to patriotic self-sacrifice can be a winning campaign strategy, whatever prosperous voters' hunger for non-material sustenance. Soft talk of community may capture their attention. Appeals to family doubtless work too. But personal redemption through suffering? You'd have to believe that there is a McCain-sized hero hiding inside everyone to put your faith in that.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.