"Meet the Press" host Tim Russert routinely uses his merciless journalistic skills to pick apart the policy statements of the Democratic presidential candidates. Last week, after Howard Dean announced he was going to start talking more about religion on the campaign trail, Russert made the former Vermont governor's faith journey a character issue. "If he was baptized a Catholic," Russert intoned, "then became an Episcopalian, left that church because of a feud over a bike path . . . and is now Congregationalist, is he going to be seen as someone who is trying . . . to publicly embrace Christ to be seen as more religious than he really is?"

This line of thinking makes me nervous. Sure, we should scrutinize the candidates' comments on faith. After all, we assess the consistency of their pronouncements on trade policy or Medicare, so why not religion? But as journalists and commentators parse the candidates' religious statements, they're doing so in ways that can only remind those running why they used to keep quiet about such matters.

As editor of a religion Web site, I viewed it as a positive development when the candidates started talking about their spiritual lives. We can learn a lot about them by listening to them discuss their faith: where they draw their strength from, whether they are fatalistic or believe people can control world events, how they make sense of injustice in the world, and what they value most.

But the punditry so far has been ignorant of how Americans develop their style of religious observance, and I fear it could chill honest discussion of religion. The implication of Russert's question, for instance, is that Dean's shifting among religions indicated a lack of conviction, as if only consistency equals piety. A similar point was made about Wesley Clark after he said, in an interview with Beliefnet, "I'm spiritual. I'm religious. I'm a strong Christian and I'm a Catholic but I go to a Presbyterian Church." Deal Hudson, editor of the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis, complained, "Gen. Clark, still hot in pursuit of the Democratic nomination for President, finally clarifies his real religious convictions -- namely, he doesn't seem to have any."

To some extent this reflects a common tic of many political reporters when facing many subjects. Uncomfortable with making value judgments about the wisdom of someone's policy, they gravitate toward the measurable -- signs of inconsistency or hypocrisy. So it's no surprise that the same standard is now being applied to faith. Going from Catholicism to Episcopalianism is, in the lexicon of political reporting, a flip-flop.

But if Dean and Clark are therefore spiritually promiscuous, they have excellent company. Twenty to 30 percent of Americans now practice a faith different from the one in which they were raised, according to Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow. And a much higher percentage have switched houses of worship.

For 20 years now, sociologists have documented how Americans have become "consumers" of spirituality. Changing faiths or churches could mean someone is flighty, but more often it means that they take their spiritual journey seriously enough to reassess it constantly. This is what baby boomers do. They shop. And serious shoppers are often quite intense. Someone who carefully weighs the differences between Starbucks and Green Mountain Coffee and Seattle's Best may be obsessive, but you can't say he doesn't appreciate a good cup of joe.

Another misconception that has crept into the media analysis of the candidates' religious statements is the idea that Americans approach religion with the mindset of theologians. Thus, Dean and Clark have been maligned not only because they shifted a lot but because they seemed to do so for superficial reasons. Dean, it's often been noted, switched churches because of a dispute over building a bike path. Clark left the Catholic Church in anger over the anti-military rhetoric of a priest. Such trivial matters!

But again, this isn't unusual behavior. Americans often choose houses of worship -- and denominations -- based on a combination of the doctrinal, the practical and the emotional. Which church has the best choir? Which is closest to home? Whose preacher is the least boring? Where do my friends go? How does the service make me feel? "It's quite typical," says Wade Clark Roof, a University of California at Santa Barbara sociologist and author of "Spiritual Marketplace." "People want to feel good about their institutional religious connections. If they don't, they switch or simply drop out." So becoming annoyed that a church isn't community-minded enough, or is insufficiently respectful of you and your peers, seems fairly reasonable.

Similarly, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas mocked Dean for raising his children in the Jewish faith: "Dean's wife is Jewish and his two children are being raised Jewish, which is strange at best, considering the two faiths take a distinctly different view of Jesus." But millions of Americans have figured out how to raise kids in interfaith marriages, and the number is huge if you consider interdenominational marriages, which still involve ignoring serious theological lines. More than 60 percent of married people have spouses of another denomination or religion, according to the General Social Survey, a long-term study of attitudes conducted by the University of Michigan.

While raising children in such families certainly has challenges, it does not cause nearly the cognitive dissonance Thomas suspects. I'm Jewish. My wife is Presbyterian. Our kids go to Hebrew school and say the Lord's Prayer at night. My wife delights in telling our kids the story of how a poor baby born in a manger grew to spiritual greatness. Yes, Judaism and Christianity take a different view on the divinity of Jesus, which we acknowledge to our kids. But Thomas would be surprised to see how pious the children of interfaith families can be if you focus on the right values and the common ground in the two belief systems.

This approach is really no different from that being taken by George W. Bush. He's obviously a devout evangelical. And yet he said a few months ago that Christians, Muslims and Jews all pray to the same God. Does that show that his Christianity is fraudulent? If he really believed Christ was Lord, could he possibly hold both views simultaneously? He can because, while he believes he has found The Way, he acknowledges that others might possibly have as well. That's not hypocrisy. It's broad-mindedness.

Another potential trap is the assumption that if a politician makes a mistake about some aspect of religion, he is a fake. Comedian/pundit Al Franken has questioned the authenticity of the Bush administration's avowed devoutness. As one bit of evidence, he described how Bush's friend, Commerce Secretary Don Evans, didn't seem to remember important passages of the Bible despite having studied it rigorously for two years. "I realized that these guys didn't read these books line by line for two years and discuss them for two years -- they couldn't have!" he told Beliefnet. "I know these guys aren't the smartest guys in the world but they're not that dumb." Dean, meanwhile, was -- not inappropriately -- needled for saying that the Book of Job was in the New Testament rather than the Old.

Such errors could indicate that these are not the guys you want leading your Bible study group, but they shouldn't be viewed as prima facie evidence of insincerity. For most people, faith is not about doctrine; it's about a personal search for meaning in the world. It's more important to know that the Bible helped Bush stop being a lush than whether he memorized all the chapters. Knowing where to find Job in the Bible is less important than having thought about the book's central theme: How can a good God allow suffering?

Distorting a candidate's religious views is not a new hobby. In 1800, supporters of John Adams campaigned against Thomas Jefferson on the grounds that he was an atheist. He wasn't. He was a deist, a believer in a God not involved in current human events, but his views were easily caricatured. In his 2003 book, "The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America," historian Frank Lambert documents the smears, including one campaign diatribe that ran: "God -- and a religious president . . . or Jefferson and no God."

Imagine the TV ads that would run today against Jefferson -- a man who actually edited the Bible to cut out the miracles:

(Cue video)Two hands extend out of ruffled 18th-century sleeves. One hand grips a pair of scissors, the other a Bible. The scissors start cutting.

Voiceover: Thomas Jefferson says the Old Testament is full of "dung." He says the Gospels are a pack of "fabrications" put together by "fanatics."He seems to think he knows what should be in the Bible and what shouldn't be. Whom do you trust: Thomas Jefferson or the Good Book?

I recognize that if politicians exaggerate about everything else, they're likely to do the same with religion. I don't think Al Gore, despite what he said in the 2000 campaign, would really have approached presidential decisions by asking "What Would Jesus Do?" It's also hard not to laugh at the ham-handed way Dean telegraphed that he's starting to talk about religion mostly because Southerners seem into it. Some of this is totally fair game.

But picking apart a candidate's views on faith is a risky business. Every religion seems absurd to those who don't believe in it. Each person's spiritual path makes more sense to them than to anyone else. Misrepresenting their spiritual lives for political or rhetorical gain is unfair to the candidates. For speaking openly about their faith practices, they should be praised more than prosecuted.

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