09/21/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

An Englishman in the Court of Jeremiah Wright

Brits love the circus of American Christianity. Polygamist sects, TV evangelicals, a gay Anglican bishop: US faith is several categories more fun than the hymns and tea image of church in the Old Country.

A principal source of bemusement for us is the influence here of faith in politics. "Jesus Christ died for my sins," said Obama to Pastor Rick Warren as millions watched on Saturday; his tones so earnest that an Englishman repeating them would sound satirical. "I am redeemed through him. That is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis". Such an episode - a political leader being grilled by a priest on live TV - would be thought insane in the UK.

Prime Minister Brown may be the son of a Presbyterian minister and David Cameron (the opposition leader) may have sent his child to a faith school, but neither will, I assume, talk about his private religion for fear (as Tony Blair once said) of sounding "weird". Alastair Campbell, spin doctor in chief under New Labour, summed it up: "we don't do God".

Moved to learn why our countries so differ on this issue, I did something uncharacteristic and went to church. I was in Chicago; so what better to attend than the world-notorious Trinity United Church of Christ, the erstwhile platform of Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Obama's former spiritual home.

Of course as a European cynic, I expected to be unable to keep a straight face.

But an hour and a half later, something strange had happened. All inhibition had gone; I found myself with my arms in the air declaring that I did not have a personal relationship with Jesus. Now that is not British behaviour.

What caused this, if not Damascene conversion, then, at least willful participation? The atmosphere was one of infectious, collective joy. When my companion and I entered, a band was banging out blues-infused accompaniment under a booming choir in African dress. Unwittingly, I was moving to the beat before I had reached my seat.

Further, despite being the only whites in a congregation of around 3000 we were treated no differently from everyone else; my hands were held; people hugged me; I was welcomed.

Wright (now semi-retired) was not speaking. In his stead, the young Pastor Otis Moss III led the proceedings. This man was an orator of exceptional quality. He began with a scriptural passage, but drew on universal, everyday experience to develop his central theme of selflessness. There was none of the moaning victimhood of the caricatures that even we in the UK get via the more alarmist US networks. The only moment which reminded me of where I was came when asked to pray for the victim of a drive-by killing.

TUCC was plainly a source for good in this far-from-rich corner of Chicago: it was involved in the opening of a new school; it was promoting a hall of fame of elderly parishioners, presumably to foster inter-generational respect. I didn't recognise anywhere the craziness I had expected, having read about it in the London press.

European atheist liberals will point to the low high school graduate ranking of America and say that, if there were a better general level of education here, there would be less religion. But I wonder whether the infusion of Christian faith into US society and politics is because of something simpler: religion is just bigger and better in the States. While we Brits have a waning national church and the French their institutionalized laicité, Americans have a kaleidoscope to keep them excited. American Christianity, whether accompanied by a boogying rhythm or Gregorian chant, may well be another triumph for this nation's true faith: the free market of choice and competition.