To watch the recent Republican presidential debate here was to be reminded again about American voters' confusing ambivalence toward presidents and their religion. Voters prefer their presidential candidates to be members of an organized church, preferably Protestant, but not to take their religious beliefs too zealously. When President Jimmy Carter admitted that he privately prayed for guidance several times daily in the White House, more than a few argued that this was evidence that the religious Carter lacked the requisite toughness and ruthlessness to be a successful leader.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush brought total attention to the pressroom and sustained applause from Republicans in the auditorium when he answered the question, "What political philosopher or thinker do you most identify with?" with a cryptic "Christ, because he changed my heart."

For the 40 percent of the likely Republican caucus-goers who, according to the Iowa poll, described themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians, Bush's spare and blunt response may have been all the explanation required. But for a big majority in the admittedly secular pressroom, Bush failed to reveal how his religious conversion shaped his politics.

The same cannot be said about underdog Republican candidate Gary Bauer, who followed Bush and used his answer to spell out how his religious faith specifically shaped his politics: "I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. Christ, with those words, taught all of us about our obligations to each other, to the unborn child, to those living in poverty, the need for us to be together regardless of the color of our skin." George W. Bush spoke openly of his faith in unmistakably individual and personal terms, while Gary Bauer chose instead communitarian language more familiar to the traditions of both Catholics and Jews.

Bush, with his answer, did risk the wrath of some in the nation's elite who seek to extend the American separation of church and state into a mute button for any and all mention of religion.

Some Republican opponents of Bush see a darker purpose in his strategy. Both Republican analysts Rich Galen, former top aide to Newt Gingrich, and conservative thinker Bill Kristol separately confirmed to me that Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition director and a senior Bush adviser, told them that if Arizona Sen. John McCain defeated Bush in New Hampshire, then Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson would go on the attack against McCain before the South Carolina primary.

Robertson (a man of the cloth, and the cloth is cashmere) would reportedly charge that McCain's campaign finance legislation would sabotage the political agenda of the conservative Protestant churches. If this theory is true, then Bush's out-of-character refusal to meet with the gay Log Cabin Republicans would make sense as political ammunition to be used by Robertson against McCain in South Carolina.

Gary Bauer deserves credit for helping to lead the discussion beyond the mostly sterile definition of citizenship full of rights and mostly devoid of responsibility. We do have obligations beyond only those we freely choose.

Maybe next time, those who would seek to lead can begin by defining the duties of American citizenship in 2000. Tell us: What are the responsibilities we owe to our community, to our country and to each other? What sacrifices for the common good, even at our personal discomfort, would each leader ask of us over the next four years?

Now that's a debate worth having.