President Carter and Vice President Walter F. Mondale ware fixing their own breadfasts one day during the campaign, and Mondale took it upon himself to say grace before the meal. As they finishes eating, Carter asked another blessing, one of the work of the day.

It has been said that Carter's religion is as natural to him as eating and breathing, that he is a "born-again Christian," that he prays 25 times a day and reads a chapter of the Bible each night.

As governor and presidential candidate he was a deacon in his local church and a Sunday teacher. He says he wants to do the same at whatever church he joins in Washington.

As governor in Georgia, he rarely used the word God in his official speeches, and he urged and backed the expansion of public and private medical, leagal and educational services for the powerless.

He persuaded his affluent suburban Northside Drive Baptish Church to set up a medical clinic in Atlanta's ghetto, and Rosalynn Carter worked there often. He supported a bill giving full legal rights to 18-year-olds even after many Baptists who worked to get him elected protested that the bill would allow the youths to drink liquor. He responded that if these youths had to fight in a war they certainly ought to have other rights of adults.

Carter now comes to Washington with his religious style, and some have professed alarm. They forget that old-line Protestantism with piety unapologetic about itself is mainstream across the United States and that Baptists are strict guardians of the separation between church and state.

"I think people have more of a mythological concept of what his religion is," said the Rev. Bruce Edwards, Carter's pastor for two years in Plains, Ga. "I think they have stereotyped religion, and they believe he fits the stereotype - that the makes all his decisions from the Bible, that he's waiting to hear voices tell him what to do, and that's not true. I don't know, maybe some people hear voices.I don't and I know he doesn't.

"People think that having an evangelical Christian in the White House will lead automatically to some kind of sweeping spiritual change in this nation. I don't expect that kind of change," Edwards said.

Carter said in an interview in the early days of the campaign that to ascribe the social reforms enacted in Georgia when he was governor completely to his religious convictions would be "inappropriate."

"But my life has been shaped in the church," he told interviewer Bill Moyers. "My deep commitment as a Christian, and my knowledge of the example of the life of Christ, and the observations of my own religious learning of the attitude of Christ toward other human beings has been obviously an example that I followed."

One theologian Carter has read is Paul Tillich, who devoted much of his carreer to defining the essence of faith. As Carter told Moyers, "Tillich said that 'religion is a search for the relationship between us and God, and us and our fellow human beings.' And he went on to say that 'when we quit searching in effect, we've lost our religion.'"

"We we become self-satisfed, proud, sure - at that point we lose the self-searching, the humility, the subservience of God's will - no intimate understanding of other people's needs, the more inclination to be accommodating, and in that instant we lose our religion," continued Carter. "The fact that a person has deep religious convictions doesn't necessarily mean that that person always thinks that he's right, that God's ordained him to take a dominant position."

The first trait of the American people Alexis De Tocquieville noticed when he came here in the 1840s was "the religious aspect of the country . . . and the longer I stayed there the more I perceived the great political consequences from this new state of things."

"Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not impart a tase of freedom, it facilitates the use of it . . . I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion - for who can search the human heart? - but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republication institutions," he wrote in "Democracy in America."

The man in this century who discussed most completely the proper relationship of religion and politics was Reinhold Neibuhr. Carter has read Neibuhr for about 15 years.

Neibuhr's focus was on an approach, rather than a laundry list of absolute rights and wrongs, toward creating an ethical and just society.

He said that piety could not be translated directly into political action. "Religion is more frequently a source of confusion than of light in the political realm," he wrote.

In general, the theologian urged a blend of realism and idealism. He was disillusioned by Christian liberals who sought to build an earthly uptopia and by cynics who had so little faith in human nature that they imposed programs based on their own reason.

"Neibuhr, to me, has summarized his political theories in a very over-simplified way in a quotation which I've used quite often," Carter said in an interview last May. "He said the sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world. It's a complicated statement when you analyze it word by word. But I agree with this."

However, some observers question whether Carter really understands how to jump from his beliefs to social action.

"It is true he comes out of a tradition of concern for religion and moral values, but a tradition that doesn't offer much guidance as to how to translate that religions impulse into technical practical programs," remarked Michael Novak, Catholic lay theologian and columnist.

"He acts more by the seat of his pants, the strength of his staff, the spontaneity of his own judgement . . . There is a tendency to oscillate back and forth between high moral religion and tough expediency," said Novak.

"I think his two demons are to be a high moralist disconnected from reality and a tough political operator disconnected from long-range moral considerations. What he is showing is that he can wrestle these demonds to the ground and find a fairly practical middle way," Novak said.

Wes Michaelson, associate editor of the radical evangelical publication "Sojourners in Washington," has a harsher view of Carter. He thinks many people have expected far too much from Carter.

"He's gotten where he is not because above all he is a faithful disciple of Christ but because he is above all a pragmatic politician. His private faith is commendable, but I don't think he sees how you make the connections between faith and action other than in interpersonal ways," Michaelson said.

The message for Carter is obvious. "It is very important that he does not prove an embarrassment to religious people," said Novak. "When you talk a lot about morality, it puts tremendous pressure on you to do things with intelligence and with a balance of morality and intellectual esteem. If you are too idealistic or expedient it would discredit the whole enterprise. Religious people have not voiced this to Carter as much as they should."