Parsing McCain’s public statements and his biography relating to recognizable forms of Christianity is a little harder to do than Obama–there’s actually less to go on in some ways.
McCain was raised Episcopal in an elite military family. This was a kind of Eisenhower if you like kind of Christianity. It’s a very introverted style of faith which explains in part McCain’s reticence and visible uncomfortability discussing his faith publicly. Quite formal and lacking in a tradition of the altar call/personal commitment to Christ language. [Obama for example is very at ease discussing his faith].
It’s probably more accurate to say that McCain’s faith through his formative years (including perhaps his horrific experience as a POW) was in America. A kind of throwback almost Roman military religion or what Bellah would call The American Political Religion. When he becomes evangelistic, missionary, and passionate of course is in explaining and promoting the military and its ethos. Service, honor, country, duty.
When he ran in 2000, secular conservatives like Brooks and Kristol were drawn to him in part over the Bible-thumping George Bush with the idea of a “national greatness (i.e. post-religious right)” conservatism.
Now I wouldn’t say that means McCain was/is an atheist so much as it wasn’t really on his radar, one way or the other.
Now there is some controversy now over whether he is now reading religious themes back into his torture experience and who knows. And even if he did, our interpretations in fact change the very texture of our memory and experience.
Now since McCain’s failure in 2000 and his decision around 2004 to back Bush and not accept the VP for Kerry (and knowing Cheney would never run) he began his tack right in order to establish himself for a run ’08. As Welch points out in later McCain/Salter books (like Hard Call) they end up laced with religious language. McCain has been coached on speaking to the religious right–the most egregious example being saying that the country was founded on Christianity. McCain also (kinda) changed from the Episcopal to the Baptist denomination. Now that stuff is all transparently hollow but it still doesn’t necessarily get to the question of McCain’s faith.
So the question is which McCain? The current one, the one from the 70s, the so-called Maverick of 2000-2003?
If I had to characterize/guess at McCain’s faith I would say it’s something like a George Washington/John Adams kind of faith–a somewhat Deistic god/God who upholds a moral universe and providentially has blessed the US to act as a beacon to the rest of the world, pushing for liberty (faith merging with neocon policy). But fairly non-confessional and somewhat at arms length.