Religion and politics, the two topics most people's parents said not to discuss in polite company, are roaring conjoined into the 2004 presidential race. This continues the disturbing trend seen in 2000 when George Bush opined that Jesus was his favorite political philosopher and Al Gore said he asked himself regularly, "What would Jesus do?" before making policy decisions.

But should we be concerned about this? After all, TV preacher Pat Robertson says the election is already over. Addressing his "700 Club" audience Jan. 2, Robertson said he had discussed the election with God and added, "I think George Bush is going to win in a walk. I really believe that I'm hearing from the Lord it's going to be like a blowout election of 2004. It's shaping up that way."

I felt that Pat should get some help spreading his important message, so we at Americans United called the Associated Press and informed a reporter of Robertson's startling revelation. The AP sent the story around the world. In the dispatch, I quipped, "Maybe Pat got a message from [Bush strategist] Karl Rove and thought it was from God."

Other commentators were more blunt, some suggesting that Pat start handicapping horse races or picking lottery numbers. There were also sarcastic suggestions that maybe Robertson should have talked to God a little more before he began his own (quite unsuccessful) campaign for the Oval Office back in l988.

Somewhat surprisingly, the sharpest critique may have come from the right, not the left. Cal Thomas, perhaps the most widely read Christian conservative columnist in the nation, wrote, "Not since God appeared directly to Moses in a burning bush and to the Old Testament prophets and early New Testament apostles has any sane person claimed this kind of direct revelation."

Thomas went on to add that a claim like Robertson's "offers joke material to Leno and Letterman and brings the Christian Gospel into further disrepute before unbelievers."

Obviously, the election is far from decided. And candidates appear to be moving ever deeper into theological territory. The sometimes strange and convoluted answers they give about matters of the spirit often remind us that it is wise and proper that presidential contenders not start thinking they are running for "Theologian in Chief" in the first place.

Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean first told the press that he considers religion a private matter, though he does pray daily. He indicated a willingness to talk more about religion after campaigning in the South, where he noted public religiosity is higher than in his New England home.

Dean's credibility was questioned after he announced that his favorite work in the New Testament was the Book of Job, which is actually located in the Old Testament. Later, he said his favorite book of the New Testament is "anything in the Gospels."

President George Bush himself continues to wade into theologically shark-infested waters. He recently asserted, much to the chagrin of many conservative Christians, that Christians and Muslims pray to the same God. Plugging the "faith-based" initiative in New Orleans last month, Bush proclaimed his support for solving intractable social problems through "the miracle of salvation."

Frankly, all of this discussion makes me wish that both Americans in general and the media would be at least willing to accept as definitive the answer to the religion issue given in 2000 by Senator Bill Bradley: religion is a private matter that will not be discussed during the campaign. Of course, I am not interested in curtailing anyone's First Amendment right to ask or answer questions. I just fail to see the wisdom of needing religious information.

Another interesting controversy this month has been Wisconsin Bishop Raymond Burke's demand that Catholic politicians either vote consistent with the Vatican's positions on abortion, euthanasia and similar matters or be denied the rite of Holy Communion. Were all church leaders to do the same, we would be heading down the road of creating religious political parties. If you voted for a Methodist you would be voting for a person who would follow the policies of that church; vote for a Catholic and you'd be casting your lot and your vote for Roman Catholic policy as the basis for legislative judgment. Plenty of other countries have gone this route, and the results are not pretty.

Put all these examples together and I hope you get this message: The Framers of the Constitution got it right when they said there should be no religious test for public office. They got it right not just as a technical matter, but as a foundational one. America works as well as it does because we spend most of our time as voters asking candidates what their visions for the country are and where they stand on issues. This tells us about their values in a general sense, but it doesn't tell us about their theologies or personal faith. That is as it should be. The next reporter inclined to pursue a candidate's views on, say, the Virgin Birth might better bite their tongue and ask about the constitutionality of "faith-based" initiatives or, if the question must be non-issue-oriented, what the candidate's favorite film of all time happens to be.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.