Barack Obama articulated his Christian faith thus dispelling rumours he is a Muslim. John McCain demonstrated an ability to electrify evangelical Christians. And Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren proved Americans can discuss religion and politics without the bitterness, rancour and polarisation that characterised the 2004 US election - writes Cheryl Heckler.
All this took place in an unprecedented forum in the history of the U.S. presidency, when each candidate was asked the same questions. The topics included abortion, personal moral failures, leadership styles and the best response to evil. Britain's Economist magazine on 16 August described the host, Warren, as "the most powerful Evangelical in America".
Held in Lake Forrest, California, the forum, conducted on 16 August and broadcast on CNN television, showed the different approaches of the candidates. Obama used a conversational style and spoke directly to Warren, while McCain was often blunt and spent a lot of time facing the audience.
Obama supports abortion rights and civil unions for gay partners, and identified evil as a force at work across a range from recent events in Darfur to the streets of U.S. cities. The presidential candidate said evil was "to be confronted but with humility".
McCain opposes abortion, urges limits on civil unions for gays, and identified evil with Osama bin Laden. The White House hopeful insisted that "[Evil] must be defeated" and that he would follow bin Laden "to the gates of hell" to defeat him.
Warren maintained an even tone and personal warmth with each candidate as he asked each the same questions, to Obama for the first hour and McCain for the second. The audience at Saddleback, a 20 000-member so-called "mega-church", applauded nearly twice as often for McCain as for Obama.
More than 200 000 people from throughout the world submitted questions for Warren's consideration. When asked what Christianity means to them, both men had similar answers.
Obama said, "At a starting point, it means that Jesus Christ died for my sins and that I am redeemed through Him. I know I don't walk alone. I know if I can get myself out of the way, I can carry out in some small way what He intends."
McCain said, "It means I'm saved and forgiven." Then he told one of several stories from throughout the evening about his years in a Vietnamese prison camp. He explained that a guard came to his cell one night and, without explanation, loosened the ropes around McCain's arms and neck. That year on Christmas Day, McCain was standing outside his cell when the same guard came by and quietly drew a cross in the dirt.
"For a minute there, there were just two Christians worshipping together," McCain said.
Political analyst David Gergen, following the event, observed that McCain's use of stories from his time in Vietnam were especially effective with the audience. "John McCain is going to be a tougher opponent for Obama than anyone could have guessed a few weeks ago," Gergen said. "He is able to tell a very powerful story that is really emotionally connected to his audience."
When asked about their greatest individual moral failures, Obama spoke of his experimentation with drugs and alcohol as a youth, while McCain said simply, "The failure of my first marriage."
After the programme, CNN's senior political correspondent, Bill Schneider, said, "America saw this as a debate without squabbling. They talked about religion and values without bitterness and accusations."
At the end of his interview with Warren, Obama said, "These are the kinds of forums we need … I want people to know me well. I'm sure John McCain feels the same way. If we are known, I trust in the American people to make a good decision."
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]