Like all such churches, the Saddleback Church is a huge modern sort of glassy barn-like structure, set in the Californian hinterland, the rolling subdivisions from which it draws its congregation. It’s Saturday night, and the church is full — and being beamed into the living rooms of the nation on CNN, Fox and MSNBC. Tonight, for the first time in the campaign, Barack Obama and John McCain are sharing the same stage, sort of. The church’s pastor Rick Warren has managed to persuade each candidate to undergo an in-depth interview, and the networks have understandably piled on.

Warren, a portly, vaguely goofy man with a ginger goatee, is on stage introducing the whole thing. He’s is the author of the Purpose Driven Life, a Christian self-help book which has apparently sold more than 25 million copies in hardback. Purpose Driven Life — and the vast programme of marketing and hype around it — is not without its wisdom or usefulness, but like many such books it’s a dose of instant supercharged meaning — inviting people to deal with any sense of purposelessness or confusion by relying on a sense of absolute certainty that one was made by God.

Faith, instead of being a constant urge towards belief in a world which doesn’t give much evidence in favour of it, is a sort of cosy bubble that helps you get through the day. It’s the ultimate expression of anti-theology, the idea of God utterly tamed and dessicated, in the service of individual psychological need. But it’s also, with its lack of emphasis on questions of abortion, creationism and the like, the closest thing to a nu-skool evangelism around. Warren talks about taking the demonisation out of politics, the personal attacks, and that — and of course the pushing of a subtle faith agenda — is ostensibly the subject of this encounter.

“Barack Obama won the toss and he’ll be first. We have John McCain in a cone of silence somewhere,” he joked (untruthfully, as it turned out) and Obama came out to polite applause, which was enthusiastic as it got.

Most pundits would later score the evening as a win for McCain, a judgement overwhelmingly based on the fact that Obama took it as an opportunity to have an intelligent discussion with a man whose questions ranged from the thoughtful to the whacky but which were by and large a cut above the average TV fodder. McCain used it to throw out his standard talking points to the crowd, to wild applause.

“Does evil exist and what should we do about it?”‘ Warren asked — yes it was that sort of evening — and Obama gave his student prince sort of musings, while McCain looked him in the eye and said “defeat it” and then went into the stuff about radical Islamic fundamentalism and following Bin Laden to the gates of hell etc etc. Big applause.

So it went. Obama pretty much knew that he had nothing other than roadblocks to negotiate such as the abortion issue (“when does life begin is a theological question above my pay grade”) which for McCain were free kicks — “at conception” said the old shagger to the same question, with a straight face.

Was it a triumph for McCain, as many suggested? He certainly came off as more forceful and authoritative — but also less willing to depart from his prepared answers and stock of anecdotes. How persuasive the stuff about Christmas in the Hanoi Hilton will be to a swinging voter remains to be seen. Indeed for a certain type of voter, that failure to face the situation at hand, to answer questions in a thoughtful way, that rigidity, will be exactly what turns them off.

But given Obama’s performance, it won’t turn them onto him. This musing thoughtfulness, this seminaresque mien, the lack of a memorable line, something to sock it home – is this deliberate? Is it running dead, or low key, in order to come out swinging at and after the Convention? It’s the question that we keep coming back to in this campaign, and his fumbled reaction to the Russian-Georgian conflict — which to his considerable bad luck, happened during a vacation — calling on both parties to “show restraint” seems to confirm the growing feeling that this low-key approach is sheer diffidence, the deep Democratic unwillingness to seal the deal.

We’ll know after the Convention. Either Obama’s going to come out swinging at a higher level or stumble along to defeat or a paper-thin victory in November. Warren sold the encounter to the networks and the country as a chance to see the candidates in a different dimension, but it’s a mark of inexperience to really believe that.

At the end, Warren stood up, in his blue check shirt and his dry and lifeless hair, and gave some camp counsellor blather about American blessedness that the networks cut in half with ads. His agenda had been clear through the interviews — pushing faith-based organisations, and tightening the screws on the abortion question. But it’s a measure of the inadequacy of the American media that this man — half genuine, half huckster — with his anodyne homilies and vaguely tricky questions, has been constructed as some sort of spiritual inquisitor, getting to the very soul of the candidates.

Anything rather than do the job themselves.

Peter Fray

Save 50% on a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

The US election is in a little over a month. It seems that there’s a ridiculous twist in the story, almost every day.

Luckily for new Crikey subscribers, we’ve teamed up with one of America’s best publications, The Atlantic for the election race. Subscribe now to make sense of it all, and you’ll get a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year’s digital subscription to The Atlantic (usually $70AUD), BOTH for just $129.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey