The 933rd Republican debate last night did not add much to the sum of human knowledge. Viewers were treated to extensive discussion of Newt Gingrich’s lunar colonization plans, the revelation that Mitt Romney has no idea what’s in his own TV ads (never mind that “I’m Mitt Romney and I approved this message” tag), and confirmation that Rick Santorum has borrowed his misunderstanding of the Declaration of Independence from Alan Keyes.

Ron Paul repeated his call to end the embargo against Cuba. Shocking to pundits, who thought it a suicidal move, but the audience cheered. (Cuban politics in Florida has been changing; there’s a segment of younger Cuban-Americans that has been waiting a long time to hear this message.) A question about healthcare from an unemployed woman was Paul’s most difficult of the night and illustrated one of his weaknesses: he gave a thoughtful, historical account of why healthcare costs are so high (largely due to federal involvement, particularly Medicare), but now that costs are astronomical, what are Americans — especially those out of work — to do?

One of the hardest challenges all libertarians face is how to sell the transition from a statist system to a freer one: we’ve seen plenty of examples worldwide, perhaps most appallingly in the former Soviet Union, where a botched transition has discredited anti-statist ideas and exacerbated human suffering. Congressman Paul and his staff have given this some thought — hence his repeated insistence that he won’t end welfare-state programs while people are dependent on them — but his presentation is still long on diagnosis and short on prescription.

Near the end of last night’s debate came a question about how each candidate’s religious beliefs would influence his administration. A trap for Mitt? He gave a bland answer about the importance of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Ron Paul again dared to say something that wouldn’t win him many votes: that his oath to uphold the Constitution would be more important than his religious beliefs.

Newt or Mitt — they were indistinguishably ecumenical — invoked the importance of praying to God for instruction. This brought to mind memories of George W. Bush saying that he didn’t get his father’s advice before invading Iraq, he consulted a higher Father instead. There’s a fine line here: it’s one thing to ask God for the wisdom to make the right decision; it’s another for a politician to believe that his policies are endorsed by the Almighty. Realistically, what leader is going to hear the voice of God telling him anything other than, “Go for it”? Could you imagine a circumstance in which Newt, or Bush, or Obama, hears a voice telling him to call off the war? Cool it with the tax cuts or government growth? Where God and the American president are concerned, the phrase that comes to my mind is the one about hardening Pharaoh’s heart.

Santorum took the occasion to emphasize the Declaration of Independence as the “why” of American government (in contrast to the mere “how” of the Constitution) and ascribed a rather bold theology to a document that, after all, was drafted by Thomas Jefferson, a man not renowned for his orthodox beliefs.

Political Christians today have a hard time understanding the religious configuration of the early United States. The difficulty is that the least conventionally religious Americans of the day were often political allies of people we would now identify as ancestors of the Religious Right. Deists and Baptists alike did not want to be taxed to support established Anglican or Congregationalist churches, and there was a strong strain of anti-clericalism and emphasis on individual judgment among both the philosophers and the extreme Protestants. Total disestablishment and liberty of conscience were policies that appealed to both types; each was absolutely confident that within a generation it would inherit the earth if the marketplace of religious ideas were left free.

Most Americans did not take as hard a line on church-state relations as Jefferson, Madison, and the devout among their allies did; the poles of opinion back then were those who saw establishment in anything less than a “wall of separation” and those who thought that a vague but public Christianity was an indispensable prop to civil order. Even those poles did not always attract the alliances you might expect; a doubting Unitarian like John Adams was quite firmly on the side of a civil — but certainly not established — Christianity.

It’s fair to say that Ron Paul is very much in line with Madison and Jefferson. (Indeed, one suspects a President Paul, like Madison, would have reservations even about declaring a day of thanksgiving and prayer — where does the Constitution say the president should do that?) It would be interesting to see a politician who could articulate the civil Christian point of view in anything other than a rote manner. Alas, instead we have Gingrich, Romney, and Santorum.