Few evangelical teachers and counselors have gained a broader following in mainline and conservative churches in recent years than James C. Dobson, leader of the California-based "Focus on the Family" print and media empire.

So if it seems that religion has played a smaller role in the final stages of this year's presidential race than in the past three elections, read carefully the following - taken from a letter Dobson mailed to thousands of his followers.The epistle, dated Sept. 15, takes the form of a "non-partisan" series of questions to candidates George Bush and Michael Dukakis.

Under the heading "Religious Beliefs," Dobson wrote: "While we understand why it would be unwise for either of you to speak specifically of theological understandings and beliefs, untold millions of God-fearing Americans are watching you carefully to see whether you have made a personal spiritual commitment."

To Bush, Dobson issues a challenge to "convey to your constituency that you are, in fact, a man of faith who depends on the Creator for strength and wisdom. How can you do less, as a committed follower of Jesus Christ?"

Bush has made dozens of statements that he is a committed Christian, so Dobson's question to the Republican is gentle - or even a discreet, symbolic hug.

Not so with Democrat Michael Dukakis: "Gov. Dukakis, I challenge you to tell us where you stand . . . . I have no knowledge as to God's role in your life. Many Christians, however, have noted the fact that during your July acceptance speech, you did not mention your dependency on God or a Higher Power . . . .

"I truly hope that your speech is not an accurate reflection of your personal relationship with our Creator."

Dukakis has long stressed the role his Greek Orthodox heritage has played in his life. But he has suffered numerous attacks, even within his own faith, because his status in the church is hazy - in part because his wife, Kitty, is Jewish.

The key question: Is Dobson's pre-election letter non-partisan? This is an important question for at least two reasons. First, Dobson is acting on behalf of a religious organization, not a political lobby.

Second, he is not the only person circulating a pre-election packet. There are many others making the rounds, each crafted to sell a particular political message to a particular religious audience.

Religious leaders on the left and right do this, but liberals, perhaps showing signs of greater experience, seem to be more careful to base their materials on verbatim responses by candidates, addressing common issues.

Dobson's letter, and others, crosses a line. It now even seems to be safe to question the state of a candidate's soul. While this subject may have been off-limits in the past, a candidate's faith can now be targeted - even in printed materials from a non-profit religious group.

On issue after issue, Dobson follows a pattern, chiding Bush to strengthen an already conservative stance followed by a slam of Dukakis.

On abortion, for example, Dobson warns Bush that, while his anti-abortion stance has been noted, he has not "sought to be the leader . . . of those who would give their life for the protection of unborn children."

Dukakis is told that "Despite your long-standing support of abortion, we who are pro-life hope you will allow the weight of scientific evidence to change your mind."