WASHINGTON – Presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was criticized by several religious groups Monday following his remark that America is a Christian nation and that he prefers a Christian president to lead the country.
The multi-denominational Web site Beliefnet, which covers religion and spirituality, asked McCain if a Muslim candidate could be a good president.
"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," McCain said in the interview posted Saturday.
"But that doesn't mean that I'm sure that someone who is Muslim would not make a good president," he added, saying he would vote for a Muslim if the person was "best able to lead the country and defend our political values."
McCain was raised Episcopalian and currently attends a Baptist church in Arizona.
The White House hopeful also said he agreed with a recent poll that 55 percent of Americans believe the U.S. Constitution establishes a Christian nation.
"I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation," he said in the interview.
Several Jewish and Muslim organizations denounced McCain's comments arguing that McCain offended America's pluralistic faith heritage and that there was no religious requirement for public office.
Among the organizations expressing opposition are the American Jewish Committee, the National Jewish Democratic Council, and Council on American-Islamic Relations.
"To argue that America is a Christian nation, or that persons of a particular faith should by reason of their faith not seek high office, puts the very character of our country at stake," Jeffrey Sinensky, the general counsel of the American Jewish Committee, said in a statement.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), an Orthodox Jew, defended his colleague.
"I have known John McCain very well for many years and I know that he does not have a bigoted bone in his body," said Lieberman, according to The Associated Press. "I know that he is fair and just to all Americans regardless of their faith."
McCain also sought to clarify his remarks while campaigning in Hollis, N.H.
"What I do mean to say is the United States of America was founded on … Judeo-Christian values, which were translated by our founding fathers [and are] basically the rights of human dignity and human rights," he said, according to CNN.
"I believe that anyone can be president of the United States of any faith," McCain said.
McCain's spokeswoman, Jill Hazelbaker, also said, in a statement, that when the interview is "read in context" the statement that America is a Christian nation "is hardly a controversial claim."