Reporters who cover the pope's travels, as I once did, regularly ransack his sermons for a political angle that might interest their editors back home. After reading through a packet of papal addresses one day during a trip to Africa, a wire service colleague complained loudly (and partly tongue-in-cheek) that he didn't know what to write because "there's nothing but religion here."

That may prove to be a parable for the 2000 election campaign as journalists sift through the candidates' highly personal declarations of faith. George W. Bush made the pronouncement heard 'round the world earlier this month when a moderator in a debate in Iowa asked each of the Republican candidates to name the "political philosopher or thinker" with whom he most identified. Bush replied, crisply and somewhat abruptly, "Christ, because he changed my heart."

Bush was not alone in naming Jesus. Gary Bauer cited Christ's commands to help the hungry, the thirsty and the poor as a guide to social policy. Orrin Hatch agreed with Bush in seeing Jesus as a guide, but added the interesting aside: "I think that goes without saying."

Hatch's comment goes to the heart of the controversy Bush unleashed: Are we better off when a candidate's religious faith "goes without saying?" Would it be better for religious tolerance if all candidates were to stand with Democrat Bill Bradley on this issue? In a subsequent debate with Al Gore in New Hampshire, Bradley declined to criticize anyone else for "open expression of their faith," but then declared: "I've decided that personal faith is private, and I will not discuss it with the public."

Sociologist Alan Wolfe describes our current confusion with perfect pitch: "Two hundred years after the brilliant writings of Madison and Jefferson on the topic, Americans cannot make up their minds whether religion is primarily private, public, or some uneasy combination of the two."

But it is surely a legitimate public issue if a candidate's religious convictions will affect the way he will govern. Isn't that something all of us should want to know? "In principle," says Father J. Bryan Hehir, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, "it's appropriate for a religious candidate to make known and explain his religious convictions. It leads to a richer and more informed public debate."

But like many, I was deeply bothered by the way Bush made his Des Moines declaration. Unlike Bauer, Bush did not explain how Christ's teachings affected his view of policy. I was even more put off by Bush's reply to a follow-up asking him to tell viewers how Jesus had changed his heart. "Well," Bush replied, "if they don't know, it's going to be hard to explain."

As a Catholic, I found these words exclusionary and condescending--that if you didn't have his specific kind of religious experience, he couldn't possibly explain to you what you couldn't understand. My reaction turned out to be typical. In the post-debate commentary, the harshest attacks on Bush's statements came from Catholics, Jews and others outside the evangelical Protestant orbit.

On the other hand, many evangelical Protestants were just as put off by the attacks on what Bush said. They saw the criticism as an assault on their own forms of religious expression. "That's how we talk about our faith," said a Southern Baptist friend who is a staunch Democrat and has no use for Bush as a presidential candidate, but found herself defending his Iowa remarks.

"Bush," says Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, "was describing a personal, existential subjective experience that was real for him, but was put in language and terminology unfamiliar to the Jewish religious experience and the Catholic religious experience."

One price of religious freedom in a pluralist society is that if presidential candidates choose to express their religious views to us, they have an obligation to explain themselves in ways accessible to all of us, and provide information that has some bearing on how they would govern. That's why Bauer's answer was far better than Bush's.

"Religion is certainly about the heart, but it's about more than the heart," says Father Hehir. "It's about an intellectual structure of belief, and a candidate needs to explain what that intellectual structure is about. And that was totally missing from Bush's answer."

So, by all means, let candidates be candid in sharing their religious convictions, and may the rest of us be respectful. But once a candidate chooses this path, he needs to explain exactly why the information is relevant to whether we should make him our president.