The presidential race is beginning to pick up the pace. Where the candidates stand on the war in Iraq remains one of, if not the, central position, but it is clear even at this early date, this campaign is going to bring an expanded discussion of religion. I guess it is not surprising, given the prominent role Christian conservatives have played in the Bush Administration. However, there is evidence to suggest the topic is going to be an issue also with Democrats in this campaign. Last month a liberal evangelical group, Sojourners/Call to Renewal, organized a televised forum broadcast on CNN. Three of the leading Democratic candidates, former Sen. John Edwards, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barrack Obama, opened up on their personal faith and the role that it plays in their private and public lives.

Intimate discussions of politics and religion have long been the province of Republican candidates; that appears to be changing. Cokie and Steve Roberts wrote an interesting column on the potential candidacy of former Republican Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee. The couple speculated as to whether a potential Thompson candidacy, centered on a theme that none of the other candidates is strong enough to keep “that woman” out of the White House, will fly with Christian conservatives. Is the GOP nightmare of having Clinton as the 44th president strong enough to overcome Thompson’s family values baggage? One of the other candidates on the GOP side, Mitt Romney, is a religious conservative but it is unclear how his Mormon faith will be accepted by voters.

It seems to me the religion discussion in this campaign is misdirected. We have candidates in both major political parties and independents as well, willing to discuss their personal faith more than ever. Not that I think that is wrong, but religious freedom and tolerance has been the rule, not the exception in this democracy for more than two centuries. That is not the case in many parts of the world with governments with which the U.S. must interact and participate, and it is particularly true of areas and governments that are making the headlines daily. We live in an intensely religious world where theological beliefs are reasons for people to wage war, deny food to starving children and fly planes into buildings. The religion dialog that we should be having in this extended presidential campaign is not whether a candidate may be Mormon or Jewish, but how well he or she knows the religions of the world.

Not that he is a candidate, but when the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee a few months ago was unable to say if al Qaeda is a Sunni or a Shiite group, it illustrates the problem. The people who would be president should understand and be able to answer basic questions about Christianity, Judaism, Islam and the religions of Asia. The religions of the countries with which America is engaging diplomatically, economically and militarily play a pivotal role in their relations with other countries.

Presidential candidates should know which form of Islam, Sunni or Shia, predominates in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Do they know the four countries with the largest Muslim populations? Do they know that all of them (Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India) are outside of the Middle East? These are the religion issues that should be the focus of discussion during this presidential campaign.

In reading Khaled Hosseini’s second novel, “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” one finds it hard to avoid asking, “What if?” In his current novel, Hosseini, whose first book was “The Kite Runner,” uses the experiences of two women to tell a story of religious tyranny in his native Afghanistan. The descriptions of life under the Taliban make for depressing reading, but they also can conjure up a sense of accomplishment when one remembers scenes from five years ago. There were pictures of Afghanis voting in elections and the Taliban being driven out of the country by U.S. forces.

But today’s reports indicate they are reappearing and growing in numbers and strength in the country. The Associated Press reported Friday the draft of the National Intelligence Estimate is expected to paint a worrisome portrait of al Qaeda’s ability to use its base along the Pakistan-Afghan border to launch and inspire attacks against the U.S.

What if we would have stayed on task in Afghanistan and ferreted out and defeated al Qaeda? What if we had not let ourselves become distracted by regime change in Iraq? What if — indeed?

Robert Brincefield is publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at bob.brincefield@brownwoodbulletin.com.