If Rick Warren hoped to spark more light than heat at the presidential forum he conducted Saturday evening at his California megachurch, then he succeeded.

Americans already had seen “firsts” during the primary season’s flood of debates. The news media chased buzz and ratings by allowing voters to ask candidates questions — some on the mark, some nutty — from the audience, via e-mail or by submitting YouTube videos.

To his credit, Warren’s GodTube-friendlier format with Barack Obama and John McCain looked and sounded more like America than the YouTube version.

“This one seemed more grounded, centered, logical,” ventured one viewer in the target audience of evangelical Christians, “less random and agitated.”

Warren’s Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency cast the Southern Baptist pastor as sole questioner of McCain and Obama in front of an audience of 2,000. It was beamed and streamed live to millions more on Fox, CNN and MSNBC from his 22,000-member Saddleback Church in California’s Orange County.

And unlike the primary “debates,” it wasn’t about the candidates taking turns thumping their chests while disparaging the other guy (or gal).

Warren, whose bestselling “The Purpose Driven Life” propelled him into the ranks of the nation’s hottest evangelical preachers, prepared identical questions for Obama and McCain. Most were straightforward explorations of the worldly and eternal perspectives of two men he calls friends –- including what to do about evil.

“Faith is just a world view,” Warren said in understated opening remarks, “and everybody has some sort of world view.”

One big surprise was that Warren didn’t dwell on topics he stressed in promoting the event. As my Heritage colleague Ryan Messmore noted Friday in National Review Online, the pastor had specified climate change, poverty, AIDS and human rights among “pressing issues that are bridging divides in our nation.”

The closest Warren came to any of them Saturday evening, though, were questions on human trafficking, abortion and orphans.

The pastor did keep a pledge to sift the candidates’ “faith, values, character and leadership convictions.” He elicited one sharp contrast by asking them to name current Supreme Court justices they wouldn’t have nominated.

Obama singled out Thomas, then implied Scalia and maybe Roberts. McCain swiftly listed Ginsburg, Souter, Breyer and Stevens.

 Warren also drew out a stark difference by asking at what point unborn children “get human rights.” That determination, the pro-choice Obama responded, was “above my pay grade.” The pro-life McCain was succinct: “At conception.”

Obama and McCain went tieless with shirts unbuttoned at the collar under dark suits –- a nod to casual dress at Saddleback and other evangelical churches. (They were so well coordinated with each other and their host, my wife suspected out loud, they probably had arranged to sing out of the same style hymnal.)

In back-to-back interviews, each sat behind a desk next to Warren. They looked comfortable, good-humored, engaged. Similarities pretty much ended there.

Obama addressed Warren while giving carefully balanced, analytical replies couched in Christian vocabulary. The Illinois senator appeared at pains not to offend traditional views with his actual votes or positions. Message: Thoughtful, reasonable.

McCain tended to fire off brief replies, even (somewhat awkwardly) on the meaning of his Christian faith. Then, eyes on the audience, the Arizona senator would tell a personal story or recite crowd-pleasers from stump speeches. Message: Decisive, likeable.

Warren’s detractors probably were disappointed when Obama cited the Bible more than either McCain or the pastor did.

Warren quoted from Proverbs, though, in asking Obama to name three of the wisest folks he knows. (Obama: his wife, his grandmother, and several veterans of Congress, one a Republican; McCain later: the U.S. commander in Iraq, a civil rights leader turned Democratic congressman; and the woman who led eBay to dominance.)

Among Warren’s other topics:  merit pay for teachers; the definition of marriage; and embryonic stem-cell research.

Some highlights:

  • Warren asked each candidate for his greatest moral failing. Obama: “selfish” teen-age drinking and drugging; McCain: the failure of his first marriage.
  • The nation’s worst moral failing? Obama: not abiding by Jesus’ teaching in addressing poverty, racism and sexism. McCain: not fully committing to a cause higher than self-interest after the September 11 attacks.
  • Should faith-based organizations, after receiving federal money to provide services, be free to hire based on shared beliefs? McCain: yes; Obama: not for doing federally funded programs.
  • Describe a stand that went against your party and jeopardized your political future. Obama: when, as a Senate candidate, he opposed President Bush’s looming invasion of Iraq. McCain humorously ticked off several examples before settling on the time, as a freshman congressman, he opposed President Reagan’s sending Marines to Beirut.