One hopes that the ''religious'' rhetoric in the presidential campaign has run its course - for it has been accomplishing just the opposite of what it should. Instead of promoting brotherhood and a sense of justice for all, as well as a general turning to spiritual and moral values, it was becoming a tool of divisiveness and self-justification, spurring angry dialogue and hateful passions.
It is ironic that a nation founded on religious liberties, a nation whose Constitution projects freedom of choice, has fallen into the trap of debating church values in the political forum.
As some politicians, including candidates now standing for office, now realize, this is dangerous business, bordering on a serious threat to the free system. Fortunately, enlightened voices are calling for restraint and caution in religious rhetoric. And they are reminding us that ours is a pluralistic society with room for diverse religious views that deserve not only tolerance but respect.
The Rev. Robert L. Maddox, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in addressing the Second World Congress on Religious Liberties in Rome recently, set forth guidelines for presidential candidates.
Among them: (1) Work diligently for your own views, including those on religion and morality, but publicly stress ''respect for diversity of opinion''; (2) discourage political partisanship in churches and synagogues which would tend to divide, rather than unify, congregations; and (3) be keenly aware of the importance of the balance between those provisions in the First Amendment of the US Constitution which prohibit ''establishment'' by the state of religion and those that protect ''free exercise'' of it.
Mr. Maddox also says it is specifically the public's responsibility not to impose a ''religious test'' on the presidency.
Good advice - for candidates, church leaders, politicians, indeed all of us!
If the lesson is not clear from our own history, we need only look to contemporary religious crises around the globe, including persecution in the Soviet Union, fanaticism in the name of religion in Iran, strife between Jews and Arabs in Israel, and church-state conflicts in Africa.
Candidates who use a political setting to call for a return to ''Christian'' values among voters would do well to weigh how this might be misused to promote bigotry. By the same token, those who lash out at the motives of any religious group, mainstream or other, should be alert to the possible fostering of discrimination.
Single-issue politics is not healthy for the American system. Choice of candidates should be made on a variety of stances - not solely on such highly volatile ''religious'' issues as abortion, school prayer, and aid to parochial schools.
Churches and synagogues - as vital elements in society - have a right to promote responsible citizenship, not denominational ballot-casting. Many already do this. They join with public-interest groups, such as the League of Women Voters, to urge voter registration, informing oneself on issues, working for candidates who have ideals, praying for guidance before going to the polls, and then voting one's conscience. This is a healthy intertwining of politics and beliefs.
Further, the role of religion could well be turned into a positive factor rather than a divisive one if candidates united in their call for strengthening the nation's spiritual fiber through respect for divergent ideas - including non-Christian and nondenominational views.
Finally, we must look at motive. Richard P. Perard, a Indiana State University historian who specializes in the study of religion and politics, perceives that it is the aim of some to ''not merely make America safe for Christians but to make America Christian.'' And the Rev. Mr. Maddox warns against a move toward an unofficial state religion.
Of course, both ideas are unacceptable. The first would lead to persecution, perhaps even religious wars. The second is inconsistent with our free democratic form of government - which protects against the intrusion of the state into religion as well as religion into the state.
What is proper - and consistent with religious protections under the Constitution - is a consecration of individuals and families to their own spiritual and moral values.
Imposing one's religious convictions on anyone else is questionable. And attempting to do it through official fiat is an affront to individual freedom, human rights, and simple justice.