- 15 Sep 08, 02:17 AM GMT
The Radiant Church in Surprise, Arizona, does a pretty good job of reconciling God and Mammon. With its own bookstore and drive-through coffee shop, the 22-acre campus felt more like an upmarket retail park than a place of worship.
This was quite deliberate. When he was building it in 1996, Pastor Lee McFarland - a former Microsoft executive - wanted it to look like a shopping mall. Hence the X-Boxes laid on for children and the free Krispy Kremes handed out to worshippers.
I came here because no less than 42% of Americans tell pollsters that they attend church each week. And as the Radiant church is one of the country's fastest-growing, I hoped it would give me some clues about which way religious voters were leaning.
When I arrived inside the main hall, a band was playing tasteful soft-rock with biblical-themed lyrics beneath a bank of plasma screens. Over 1,000 casually dressed congregants sang and clapped along.
Then Pastor McFarlane took the stage for his sermon. He was neither a demagogue nor a ranter. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt and jeans, he had the wry delivery of a New York stand-up comedian. He told a self-deprecating story about battling with a flying insect while riding his motorbike. I liked him.
When he talked about how bad things could still happen to people who went to church, the screens flashed up a montage of You've Been Framed-style home movie clips showing a baby wetting himself at a Christening and a priest dropping a communion wafer down a woman's cleavage. Like the rest of the congregation, I laughed.
After the service, I sat down with him to find out what influence churches like his had over political activity. He said that he never endorsed one candidate over another and left it to his followers to make up their own minds.
"I like to think that when I'm preaching, I'm not saying my own words," he said.
"We don't even look at the candidates, per se. It's more, 'What are the timeless principles in the Bible that we would give to the candidates?'"
It's true that he avoided political themes during the sermon I heard, other than to condemn racial prejudice - a statement that was greeted with loud cheers from his flock.
Nonetheless, most of the churchgoers I spoke to told me they were voting Republican. The party's anti-abortion principles were cited again and again. While John McCain had once been viewed with suspicion by evangelicals, the presence of Sarah Palin on the ticket appeared to have energised them.
In the lobby I met friends Laura Palmer, 39, and Janell Gallop, 48, sharing a coffee after the service. Both had opposing views on the relationship between faith and politics.
For Janell, religion was absolutely paramount.
"I vote for people who have a basis in Christianity," Janell said. "This country was built on Christianity.
"I'm going to vote for McCain. I believe that Obama has a Muslim background. He doesn't have a Christian background."
Laura interjected that this wasn't strictly accurate. Although just as staunch a believer as her friend, she described herself as an independent voter who didn't like to see politicians giving sermons.
"Religion and politics don't mix," she shrugged. "I shouldn't tell you how you should live.
"I can't make you think the way I do."
She can't. But it's clear that there are enough Christian voters to sway an election. Whether more of them are thinking like Janell or Laura remains to be seen.
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