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GOP-MCCAIN Sep-5-2008 (950 words) With photos. xxxn

McCain pledges to fight for reform, support culture of life

By Dennis Sadowski
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Positioning himself as a Republican outsider, Sen. John McCain pledged to reform politics as usual in the nation's capital while upholding a culture of life as he began the final two months of the long presidential campaign.

Accepting his party's nomination for president Sept. 4 in St. Paul, Minn., the 72-year-old Arizonan set out to distinguish himself from his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, as the candidate better positioned to achieve prosperity for the country and rebuild America's faltering status as the world's leading economic power.

McCain also framed his life as one devoted to serving his country. Describing his career in the U.S. Navy, how he was shot down over North Vietnam and his five and a half years as a prisoner of war, McCain explained how he came to realize how much his country meant to him during his captivity as he struggled to recover from the serious injuries suffered in the jet crash.

The senator's 46-minute speech invoked in broad terms a few themes expressed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' 2007 "Faithful Citizenship" document, which calls for Catholic voters to form their consciences around a variety of social concerns based on Catholic social teaching.

Most notable was his call for the widening of educational options for parents and children. Calling education "the civil rights issue of this century," McCain said parents should be able to send their children to charter schools or private schools of their choice.

While stopping short of calling for the institution of a nationwide voucher program -- under which parents would be allocated funds to be used to send their children to a school of their choice -- McCain said parents should not be required to send their children to a failing public school.

Like the bishops, he urged the country to set aside me-first concerns and to step up to serve others, volunteer for worthwhile causes or enter politics, much as he did, to build a stronger, more caring society.

But he offered few specifics in the way of policy, instead embracing the mantel of maverick given to him by critics and supporters alike and depicting himself as someone who will fight for the concerns of average Americans.

"He didn't talk a lot about economic issues that (Catholics) traditionally think of as justice/fairness issues," said Martin Shaffer, dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "He talked more about the economy in terms of there being tough times for people. He hasn't been known as a person as interested in those policy areas," he said.

On the other hand, the fact that the candidate spoke more specifically about the threats posed by al-Qaida, Iran and the Russian intervention in Georgia and its former satellite states reflects his strong desire to protect the country, Shaffer said.

McCain's approach to foreign affairs, as expressed in his speech, concerns June-Ann Greeley, director of the Center of Catholic Thought, Ethics and Culture at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. She said his seeming willingness to flex American military muscle around the world runs contrary to his views of embracing a culture of life.

"You can tell he was formed by his experience in the military," Greeley said. "I think he identifies his place as part of the warrior culture and that he's gong to protect this country. As a Catholic I can certainly identify with the importance of being ready to take up arms for the right kind of cause. Speaking as a Catholic, I do think we are asked by the Holy Father and the (U.S.) bishops to seek other paths."

Mark Gray, research associate and director of Catholic polls at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, said McCain seems to be reaching to capture independent and undecided voters in the political center by not being more specific on domestic policy.

"I think he's pretty confident in the base now," Gray said. "I think he's left a lot of the conservative issues to the vice-presidential candidate (Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin). From here on out, the traditional conservative issues he's going to have her address and he's going to try to appeal more to the voters in the center."

Even as McCain spoke of his belief in the culture of life, a term often used by Pope John Paul II throughout his long papacy to call for an end to abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia and embryonic stem-cell research, the senator failed to mention any of the procedures individually.

Scott Paeth, who studies religion in public life as an assistant professor of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago, said McCain's use of the term culture of life serves as shorthand to supporters to express a belief in many of the life issues the Republican Party has championed.

"That's very standard from a Republican perspective ... for talking about a whole raft of issues on Catholic teaching, anti-abortion, anti-stem-cell research, anti-cloning," Paeth said. "But it doesn't include anti-death penalty and it doesn't include a strong anti-war perspective."

Marianist Father John Putka, a political science lecturer at the University of Dayton in Ohio, suggested that even though the term culture of life may be considered a "code" to like believers, McCain was able to differentiate himself from Obama on a key issue.

Father Putka called McCain's references to his POW experience "very powerful."

"He framed it in terms of his war and what it did for his faith: find God and find yourself through your suffering," Father Putka added. "The average American has got to feel it in his gut for him."


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