(photo credit: AP)
As Jewish organizations slammed presidential candidate Senator John McCain for calling America a "Christian nation," his campaign told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday the affair was an "unfortunate" misunderstanding.
"He was trying to make the point that our founding fathers' respect for human rights was greatly influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition," said campaign spokesman Brian Rogers of comments published over the weekend on Beliefnet, a nondemoninational Web site devoted to issues of faith.
In the interview, the Republican senator from Arizona agreed with the 55 percent of Americans who, according to a recent poll, believe that "the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation."
He added that people of all faiths were welcome to come to America, "but when they come here they know that they are in a nation founded on Christian principles."
When the issue of a Muslim candidate for president was mentioned, McCain said, "I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles... personally, I prefer someone who I know who has a solid grounding in my faith."
He contacted Beliefnet after the interview to clarify his remarks: "I would vote for a Muslim if he or she was the candidate best able to lead the country and defend our political values."
Even so, the earlier comment raised the ire of many in the US Muslim community, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which asked that McCain appoint a Muslim adviser.
B'nai B'rith International Executive Vice President Daniel Mariaschin also voiced dismay at the statement. "In one of the most diverse presidential contests in the history of this country, it's ironic - and disappointing - to hear this comment from one of the candidates."
Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League sent a letter to McCain saying, "Absolutely nothing in the Constitution establishes that the US is a Christian nation, nor is it accurate to say that this nation was founded on Christian principles," and asking him to withdraw his remarks.
In response, Rogers said, "It's unfortunate that there's a misunderstanding," but McCain's campaign didn't retract his comments.
The National Jewish Democratic Coalition seized the opportunity to criticize McCain and urged Republican leaders to denounce his comments. The organization also noted the support McCain's words drew from at least one conservative Christian corner.
Christian Coalition of America blogger Jim Backlin wrote, "Comments like 'America was founded on Christian principles' by Sen. John McCain just might make him president."
McCain has struggled to earn the conservative Christian vote, having taken some positions that have alienated them and having infamously criticized some of their leaders as "agents of intolerance." Much of this influential group of voters has been unhappy with the Republican candidates for office, and Backlin suggested McCain might yet win them over.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, for its part, said, "A full reading of the entire interview shows Sen. McCain unequivocally reaffirming the separation of church and state and recognizing the Judeo-Christian values upon which this country was founded."
The group, which does not endorse a candidate ahead of the Republican primaries, quoted recent statements by Sen. Joe Lieberman, an Independent from Connecticut who votes Democrat and is an Orthodox Jew. Lieberman said in defense of his colleague: "I know that [John McCain] is fair and just to all Americans regardless of faith."