WWJMcD?: The Come to Christic McCain Moment in Thompsonian Homiletic Soteriology

[Video and text of Thompson’s speech here.]

Fred Thompson Tuesday night at what became the de facto opening night of the Republican Covention.  All that was missing from Thompson’s speech was an electric organ and an altar call.  It was an interesting—if at times disturbing—admixture of Billy Graham-style evangelical revivalism and American civil religion.

Follow me after the jump, for a detailed examination of the speech.  You will learn about the Three Great Doctrines of Christianity, the structuring of a evangelical politico-religious sermon/convention speech, and Felix Culpa theology.  You know you want to, so just do it…Thompson after some initial warming up of the crowd, taking some shots at the Democrats, and pumping up the VP pick Palin, formally enters his sermon by announcing he wants to tell us about the character of John McCain.  Character with a shrewd double meaning of John McCain’s personal characteristics—bravery, honor, fightin’ spirit—and the character of John McCain who is in part a literary creation both from McCain’s own oft-repeated biography to now Thompson’s application.

Classical revivalist/evangelical preaching consists of an elucidation of what Luther called the three great doctrines of Christianity:  creation, redemption (justification), and deification (sanctification).  AKA The Three Ss (not the kind better known as the morning bathroom routine) sin, salvation, and sanctification.  It is an easy-to-grasp yet powerful narrative frame of past, present, and future.  The genius of the formulation is that it any person’s conversion story can be more or less fit to the script providing both an infinite flexibility while simultaneously always remaining uniform in pattern.

The past is one of a well-meaning but ultimately wayward/lost individual (classical Calvinist depiction of creation as vitiated) whose life leads to rebellion which is the individual’s real-time repetition of Adam’s apple-eating in the garden, their own carbon copy version of Original Sin as it were.  That past eventually leads to a pit–usually metaphoric but in this case quite literal–and some moment of crisis forcing a recognition of the spiritual truth which frees and redeems, i.e. present.  The future then consists of this now freed child of God working in this world as a blessing for and as a moral exemplar to the rest of us.

Thompson follows this manual to the T.  He begins by elaborating how both of McCain’s parents were rebels.  It is in John’s DNA. A hearkening to the notion of inherited rebellion in classical Christian theology.  But Thompson of course softens the blow of the rebellion and turns it into one of McCain’s heroic traits on the journey.  That framing of the past as rebellion explains the otherwise extremely uncomfortable and TMI moment when FredT reveals to us that Johnny Mac in his youth used to get it on with a stripper from Miami known as (this can’t be made up) “The Flame of Florida”–the temptress of this story I suppose.  McCain’s rebellious nature is in certain respects lovable—he gets numerous detentions in the Naval Academy but never we are told breaks the honor code—and becomes necessary to his later survival. Thompson’s re-telling of the rebellion echoes The Easter Vigil’s strange and beautiful prayer: “O Happy Fault, O Necessary Sin of Adam that won for us so great a Redeemer.”  The Sin in other words is praised and is the only vehicle whereby Salvation may enter, just as without McCain’s rebelliousness he would never have survived his imprisonment and we would be bereft of the leader we need in this time of trial.

Then begins a long and gruesome recalling of McCain’s bodily tortures by the Vietcong—complete with a jumbotron visual of a captured McCain mammothly hovering behind Thompson.  We learn when, where, how, and why John is beaten in graphic detail.  Thompson lingers over the corporeality of it all:  “teeth broken from the gums”, “boils the size of baseballs under the arms”, “cracked ribs”, “broken bones.”  The litany of physical brutality was instantly recognizable to me as any number of sermons I’ve heard calling the listener into meditation of the precise pain of Jesus’ torture and execution.  I can hear the preacher now saying things like, “The nails went in at the wrists…”, “Crucifixion kills by asphyxiation”.  “He was in agony but yet he forgave his torturers.”   McCain is even placed in a cell near death with two other POWs like Christ on Golgotha with the criminals on either side.  McCain is quite literally participating in a kind of redemptive suffering for the nation.

McCain inevitably comes to his moment of a theological (i.e. grace-given) virtue:  this time hope (attempting to undercut Obama).  Thompson states,  “We hear a lot of talk about hope.  John McCain knows about hope. That’s all he had to survive on.”

McCain we are then told refused to give information to the Communists in order to gain his physical freedom.  McCain remembers his fellow prisoners and is to them a sign of joyful hope—freedom in the midst of bondage—smiling at his comrades as if to say that the evil guards have no power over me/us.  McCain has entered his sanctification—he is spiritually and in the patriotic moral sense free which is greater by far than mere physical freedom gained through betrayal.

Theologically Thompson is subtly accusing Obama of the heresy of Gnosticism:  that Obama’s Messiah-ism, if you will, is without the Cross, is non-bodily.  It is not incarnated.  With McCain we don’t have to ask the question “Who is this man?” With Obama (apparently) we do.  Obama is cast as a Docetic Redeemer who comes from another unknown realm to enlighten us but is not involved physically in our world.  McCain’s is a mere follower in the path of Jesus and the American tradition of warriors and therefore has sacrificed/crucified self to be raised as a loyal son of the Promise.  True as opposed to false politico-religious salvation.

The sermon then veers off into a more pedantic regular political speech about what McCain will do, why you shouldn’t vote for the other guy.  But it returns at the end to proclaim to us: Our Country—like a god—is Calling.  We of course must answer.  And ends with “God Bless John McCain and God Bless America” as if McCain is the Mediator of the Grace given to the nation.  All things American were created through him and without him no American thing came into being.

To quote Thompson once more:

“My friends this is [a?] character you can believe in.”


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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I think this has the most f-ing brilliant title for a blog entry I’ve ever seen. kudos.

  2. That may be due to the fact that you’re possibly the only person who understood the title.


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