The Editor's Desk

It is never easy to discern a person's core spiritual beliefs. Even Barack Obama, who has written two acclaimed memoirs and speaks comfortably about his faith, remains opaque on the subject. Still, religious questions and controversies have drawn fierce attention throughout Obama's presidential campaign. There was, of course, the fallout from his relationship with his ex-pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., and the persistent false rumors that Obama is a Muslim. Lately, pundits and politicos have been analyzing his chances of tapping into the evangelical Christian vote. But it seemed to us that many of these issues served to obscure his religious convictions, not illuminate them. So we asked Lisa Miller, our religion editor, to pursue a straightforward but elusive question: what does Obama actually believe?

What she discovered—the subject of our cover story, coauthored by Richard Wolffe—was a spiritual quest that is by turns unconventional and familiar. Born to a secular mother from Kansas and a Muslim-turned-atheist African father, Obama was raised with no organized religion but myriad spiritual influences. While his story is in many ways atypical, it's also a quintessentially American faith narrative, in which belief mingles with skepticism and the search for rational answers is driven by a world that's mystical and tragic. In reporting this story, Lisa was struck by Obama's open contradictions—and how frankly he spoke to her about his beliefs and religious journey. "We don't quite know what to make of someone like Obama, who is to all appearances authentically Christian and yet remains overtly a doubter, a skeptic, an intellectual, a rationalist," she says. Yet as Editor Jon Meacham points out in an accompanying essay, Obama fits squarely into a tradition of American politicians who've wrestled with doubt and faith, among them his hero Abraham Lincoln. As Jon writes, "Reason and experience make it impossible for many believers to accept that any religious creed can alone make sense of the unfolding tragedy of history."

Our legal analyst Stuart Taylor Jr. has a column this week that's sure to provoke strong reactions. Stuart makes the case that President Bush should pre-emptively pardon officials who are alleged to have approved torture in the War on Terror. He argues that a criminal investigation would only spur those officials who know the most to hire lawyers and clam up, as well as reduce the affair to an ugly partisan brawl. Instead, he writes, the next president should establish a truth commission as the best way to find out what really happened, and to lead a sober debate over where the lines of appropriate conduct should be drawn.

A story about a Jamaican immigrant who died in a Brooklyn emergency room flared briefly this month, largely because of a disturbing video that rocketed across the Internet and news broadcasts. It showed the woman, who'd waited nearly 24 hours for psychiatric care, collapsing onto the floor and writhing on the ground. For close to an hour, no one came to her aid (one nurse lightly kicked her before walking away). She died of blood clots. In our warp-speed media culture, the episode provoked brief outrage and then faded. We decided to dig deeper. What we found is a callous system of psychiatric care and emergency rooms that has become a vortex of many of our social ills, including poverty, immigration and a national health-insurance crisis. Jeneen Interlandi's account is a riveting and wrenching tale.