THE MORE I read about and watch Barack Obama, the more I am reminded of Saint Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, 13:1: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am but an empty gong or a clashing cymbal."
With his soaring rhetoric, Obama speaks with "the tongues of men and of angels", but it is unfair to suggest he lacks love. He clearly loves his family and has many friends. And it is, after all, not he but his wife who has trouble with the concept of loving America. But the talk of "an empty gong or a clashing cymbal" strikes a chord, so to speak.
Even after more than a year of vigorous campaigning, it is impossible to know what he would actually do if elected. Not that he hasn't told us, he has told us plenty, but he keeps telling us different, contradictory stuff. So what are people supposed to believe? Does he even know himself what he believes?
Is he for unconditional talks with Iran, anywhere, anytime, or not? Does he want to pull out of Iraq regardless of what happens, or does it depend on circumstances? Is he for Nafta (North American Free Trade Agreement) or against it, or indeed free trade in general? Does he love business or hate it? Is Jerusalem to be undivided or separated? Does he respect the white grandma who raised him or despise her as a racist?
Over the long campaigning months, his uplifting speeches and (rarer) debates and interviews have at different times adopted both sides of these questions, and many others, in what almost amounts to Orwellian doublespeak.
His big nomination speech during the Democratic Convention didn't add much light, and for much the same reason. For example, how long will it be before he "clarifies" what he means by, say, his trumpeted tax cuts for 95 per cent of working families, or whether ending US dependence on Middle Eastern oil in 10 years means making the current two and a half million daily imported barrels vanish?
Let's see whether other aspects of his life shed any light. Views about people are often formed by what they have achieved in their lives. But Obama's career before this campaign has thrown up no accomplishments of note, other than two autobiographical books that are earning him millions of dollars, though this seems to be more because of his rock-star status than their content.
He began his working life as something called a "community worker", but no one ever explains what that means, and if he had left a legacy, you can be sure we would have been told about it. He then lectured on law at the University of Chicago Law School, but published not a single piece of academic work - unusual for someone termed a professor.
He was elected a two-term senator in Illinois with another term in the federal Senate, but without being the primary sponsor of any legislation of significance, and in the latter forum, his voting record last year placed him as the 100th most left-wing senator out of 100.
So you certainly can't evaluate him by his achievements. Is he therefore "but an empty gong?" How about the people he mixes with, then? They say you can judge a man by the company he keeps. But some of Obama's friends look decidedly odd.
There are the America-hating, toxic pastors Jeremiah "God damn America" Wright and Michael "Hillary mocker" Pfleger; the unrepentant "weather underground" terrorist leaders Bernardine Dohrn and her husband Bill Ayers - about whom the Obama campaign is trying to suppress a YouTube video reminding us that he tried to blow up the Capitol in 1971, and a fascinating interview with Stanley Kurtz, a Hoover Institute Fellow, about the murky Obama/Ayers relationship.
Then there is that pair of Obama fundraisers - Rashid Khalidi, an Israel-hating supporter of Palestinian terror, and property developer and convicted fraudster Tony Rezko.
These are the kind of people he likes to hang out with and who have helped him in his career and life to date, which includes bolstering his campaign. So what does that tell us about the future judgment, sympathies and behaviour of a President Obama?
Anyone can make a mistake by choosing a friend who turns out to be a knave. But six of them? Then, contrast this motley, awkward and embarrassing coterie of buddies with his intoxicating speeches. Does this make him a "clashing cymbal"?
Extraordinary oratory; flip-flopping policies; accomplishment-free; dodgy company. That to me is Obama. A handsome but empty shell which makes a pleasing noise, along the lines described by Saint Paul.
Of course, it's too early to say with conviction whether Sarah Palin is any different, though her fellow Alaskan, Mary Mullen in Galway, writing in this newspaper the other day, clearly thinks she's not.
But you be the judge. In fact here's a better idea. Let the American people be the judge this November.
• Tony Allwright is an engineering and industrial safety consultant, and blogs at www.tallrite.com/blog.htm