John McCain had just released his payload and he was coming out of a dive when his A-4, a light, carrier-based bomber, was hit by a SAM missile. This was September 30, 1967, and it was his 23rd bombing run of the Vietnam war.

He explains in his memoir Faith of My Fathers that his squadron’s target was a thermal power plant in the heart of Hanoi that had been off-limits for most of the war to avoid civilian casualties — until new “smart bombs” made it possible for American pilots to bomb with more precision. He doesn’t claim in his book that there were no civilian casualties, simply that American pilots and commanders took “great care” to keep them “to a minimum.”

Warriors who are not insane understand that war presents them with a choice between greater and lesser evils. The greater evil is defeat. But the lesser evil, killing — killing civilians, among others — is bad enough. McCain endorses the viewpoint of his father, who as a submarine commander during World War II “executed his country’s policy of total war, a policy that attacked the sources of the enemy’s material support just as vigorously as it attacked the enemy’s armed forces. He had sunk a great many merchant ships on his patrols in the Pacific.” Either Washington should have waged total war in Vietnam, McCain writes, or it should never have entered the war at all.

Sarah Palin is a prolife absolutist who makes no exception for rape or incest; yet, as I wrote earlier, the circumstances of her daughter Bristol’s pregnancy will remind other women why they’re prochoice. John McCain presents himself to voters as prolife, but his career contradicts him. I’d like to hear him explain why a combat pilot may choose death as the lesser evil yet a pregnant woman must not.

Faith of My Fathers, published 26 years after McCain was freed but just in time for his first run for president in 2000, is McCain’s carefully considered version of himself, and it’s a remarkably secular book. Some POWs came home and wrote memoirs for religious publishing houses about sharing a cell with Christ, but McCain’s book is very different. According to an Amazon word search I did, “God” is mentioned on just 15 of the book’s 349 pages and not at all in the preface or acknowledgments. Most of the mentions are inconsequential: “The young sailor said, ‘Thank God,’ and died.” “I cried out, ‘My God, my leg.'”

God appears with some frequency in the chapter “Lanterns of Faith,” which discusses how the POWs persevered. The book’s most pious passage appears here:

“Once I was thrown into another cell after a long and difficult interrogation. I discovered scratched into one of the cell’s walls the creed ‘I believe in God, the Father Almighty.’ There, standing witness to God’s presence in a remote, concealed place, recalled to my faith by a stronger, better man, I felt God’s love and care more vividly than I would have felt it had I been safe among a pious congregation in the most magnificent cathedral.”

But McCain promptly subordinates this god to a more powerful force. He writes, “We were told to have faith in God, country, and one another. Most of us did. But the last of these, faith in one another, was our final defense, the ramparts our enemy could not cross.” And he goes on, “A few men lost their religion in prison or had never been very devout. A few men were not moved by appeals to patriotism or to written codes of conduct. Almost all of us were committed to one another.”

It’s been written that McCain is a man with religious beliefs that he, like many military types, is simply reluctant to discuss. Perhaps. But whatever his faith is, his memoir strongly suggests his life’s not centered on it. He writes. “I thought glory was the object of war, and all glory was self-glory.” But no, “Glory belongs to the act of being constant to something greater than yourself, to a cause, to your principles, to the people on whom you rely, and who rely on you in return.” McCain thinks long and hard about glory, and the commonplace idea that it flows to and from God doesn’t seem to have occurred to him at all.  

And what of Palin’s spiritual life? She wears her faith on her sleeve — the Wall Street Journal reported last Friday that she asked a youth group in her hometown of Wasilla to pray for the natural gas pipeline she wants to lay in Alaska. The Journal said that congregants at the Wasilla church where she worshipped “speak in tongues and are part of a faith that believes humanity is in its ‘end times’ – the days preceding a world-ending cataclysm bringing Christian redemption and the second coming of Jesus.” Manya Brachear’s front-page article in the Tribune Saturday placed her among the dispensationalists, Pentecostals who believe Armageddon will soon be upon us, but not before Christ returns — the Rapture — to lead the faithful to heaven. A professor of religion at Clemson University tells Brachear that Palin seems nonchalant about exhausting Alaska’s nonrenewable resources, possibly because she thinks “all her brand of Christians may be gone before those things run out.”

Christian conservatives who distrust McCain are onto something — he embodies contradictions he doesn’t seem to recognize himself. Perhaps McCain figures that he and Palin together average out to Christian orthodoxy; but I’d say that as a pair united in faith as well as politics the less scrutiny they come under the better off they’ll be in November.