Reading Andrew Sullivan’s acclaimed piece pn Election 2008 in last December’s Atlantic magazine, I noted the emphasis on Barack Obama’s religious conviction and how one Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright introduced Obama to Jesus Christ. Sullivan was wowed:

To deploy the rhetoric of Evangelicalism while eschewing its occasional anti-intellectualism and hubristic certainty is as rare as it is exhilarating. It is both an intellectual achievement, because Obama has clearly attempted to wrestle a modern Christianity from the encumbrances and anachronisms of its past, and an American achievement, because it was forged in the only American institution where conservative theology and the Democratic Party still communicate: the black church.

I remember hoping Obama knew what he was doing, because it’s hard to imagine a more divisive topic than religion these days, and he was already going to be dealing with race.

Then the Jeremiah Wright controversy erupted in March, combining the noxious hostilities of both subjects into one big national cold sore. Still, Sen. Obama came out of that crisis in pretty good shape. He delivered another astonishing address, his March 18 speech on race, and current polling finds him leading Sen. John McCain in all of 19 different “religious faith communities” except one: Evangelicals.

Back in April, when both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama discussed their faith in a public forum, John McCain declined the invitation. “I’m unashamed and unembarrassed about my deep faith in God. But I do not obviously try to impose my views on others,” CNN quoted him as saying then.

More recently, I read Matt Taibbi’s story about John McCain’s lack of religion in Rolling Stone, questioning whether McCain could continue to keep his beliefs private and ignore the large block of evangelicals the Republican party has been shepherding for so long.

Taibbi also noted a conscious shift in McCain’s routine:

So in recent weeks, to prove his piety, McCain has taken to dragging himself out of bed on Sunday mornings to attend services at North Phoenix Baptist, not-so-subtly announcing his devotions to his traveling press. (“Yeah, they started telling us he was going to church about a month ago,” one McCain-beat reporter chuckled to me on the Straight Talk Express. “Like, Oh, by the way, he’s going to church again. At this address, if you want to check. …“) Originally baptized an Episcopalian, McCain claims that he’s been attending this Southern Baptist church for some 15 years, despite the fact that his 2007 congressional biography lists his faith as Episcopalian. But in a touching display of his apparent unwillingness to do absolutely anything to get elected, McCain still hasn’t been baptized in his new church — he’s not born-again, in other words. Dude is holding out for some reason. Like he’s afraid to lie to God. A politician, afraid to lie!

Today, the campaign shifts into a whole new gear. In a Chicago Tribune exclusive headlined “John McCain and the POW church riot,” it suddenly emerges that “Sen. John McCain, who is known for his reticence and even discomfort invoking faith on the campaign trail, was once dubbed a ‘Hell’s Angel’ for rioting against his captors in Vietnam in order to hold Sunday church services.” And there’s more:

In an extended interview, McCain talked about how his faith was tested during his years as a prisoner of war from 1967 to 1973, said God must have had a plan for him to have kept him alive, and reminisced about his appointment as informal chaplain to his cellmates.

Indeed, a plan is becoming clear. It’s no coincidence that “America’s most influential pastor,” the Rev. Rick Warren, happens to be hosting a “civil forum on the presidency” tomorrow night on CNN at 7:00 Central. Benificently, Warren “said he won’t endorse either candidate and will let his followers make up their own minds.” In other words, he’s giving them free will.

At any rate, it should have enough of a squirm factor to make for compelling TV: One man who considers himself capable of interpreting the intent of God scrutinizing two others who consider themselves competent to lead the free world, one of them possibly kept alive by God for this purpose, and all three of them battling to come off as just a humble servant.

I know — you’ll be watching the Bears game.

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