First up from the God Machine this week is a closer look at a congregational change for one of the Republicans’ leading presidential candidates.

Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann has long been a darling of conservative evangelicals, but shortly before announcing her White House bid she officially quit a church she’d belonged to for years.

Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman, and her husband Marcus withdrew their membership from Salem Lutheran Church in Stillwater, Minnesota last month, according to church officials.

The Bachmanns had been members of the church for more than 10 years, according to Joel Hochmuth, director of communications for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the broader denominational body of which Bachmann’s former church is a member.

While a family leaving a specific congregation wouldn’t seem especially noteworthy under normal circumstances, Bachmann isn’t just another politician and Stillwater’s Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church isn’t just another house of worship.

Bachmann, of course, is a darling of the religious right and a presidential hopeful who incorporates theological extremism into her political agenda. The conservative Lutheran church her family called home, meanwhile, is guided by, among other things, the belief that the Roman Catholic pope is the Antichrist. The Atlantic‘s Josh Green had a fascinating report on this just this week.

If Bachmann remains a top-tier candidate for the GOP nomination, this is a story that bears watching. If Jeremiah Wright was one of the more prominent outside figures referenced in the 2008, we can expect to learn a lot more about the Rev. Marcus Birkholz, whose sermons Bachmann and her family listened to for many years.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s (R) evangelical Christian prayer rally, “The Response,” is now facing a legal challenge from a group of atheists and agnostics. The plaintiffs, led by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, are arguing that Perry’s efforts violate the First Amendment.

* The Roman Catholic Church’s international scandal surrounding the sexual abuse of children took another ugly turn this week, with allegations the Catholic Church in Ireland was “still covering up sexual abuse of children by priests as recently as 2009, long after it issued guidelines meant to protect children, and the Vatican tacitly encouraged the cover-up by ignoring the guidelines.”

* While several conservative faith-based organizations opposed New York’s successful marriage-equality push, the “sustained efforts by liberal Christian and Jewish clergy” also played a key role in its recent passage.

* And after an organized tantrum, the president of NBC Universal issued a formal apology to 107 members of Congress, all of whom were furious when the network omitted the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance before a recent televised golf match.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.