WASHINGTON (AFP) — US Republican presidential hopeful John McCain moved Sunday to calm controversy over an interview in which he said he would prefer to have the US president be Christian rather than Muslim.
"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," said McCain, 72, in an interview posted Saturday on the faith and politics news site Beliefnet.
"I think the number one issue people should make [in the] selection of the president of the United States is, 'Will this person carry on in the Judeo Christian principled tradition that has made this nation the greatest experiment in the history of mankind?'"
Asked if that criteria would make it difficult for a Muslim to perform well, McCain responded: "I admire the Islam. There's a lot of good principles in it. I think one of the great tragedies of the 21st century is that these forces of evil have perverted what's basically an honorable religion."
McCain said his view did not mean that he thought a Muslim would not make a good leader, saying his preference for a Christian leader "doesn't mean that I'm sure that someone who is a Muslim would not make a good president."
"I just feel that my faith is probably a better spiritual guide ... I don't say that we would rule out under any circumstances someone of a different faith," said McCain, who says he was raised Episcopalian and attends a Baptist church.
McCain's comments sparked criticism from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which was quoted in the media as saying McCain's attitude went against the tradition of religious inclusion.
The Arizona senator is struggling in the race for the Republican nomination to run for president next year, trailing in the poll ratings and facing a shortage of campaign funds.
McCain's camp spoke out on Sunday to put his remarks in context.
"The senator did not intend to assert that members of one religious faith or another have a greater claim to American citizenship over another," his spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said in a statement.
"Read in context, his interview with Beliefnet makes clear that people of all faiths are entitled to all the rights protected by the constitution, including the right to practice their religion freely," she added.
"America is a Christian nation, and it is hardly a controversial claim."
Church and state are officially separate in the United States, but religion has featured prominently in political life ever since the nation's founding and still crops up in debates among the current contenders for the leadership.
There are no Muslim candidates among the Democratic and Republican hopefuls seeking US top office.
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