A speech of erratic ferocity was delivered the other day by Secretary of the Navy John Lehman. He was in Philadelphia to help dedicate a religious center called "The Chapel of Four Chaplains."

Lehman dutifully delivered the standard lines of patriotic gush--"America is the chief hope of Western Judeo-Christian civilization"--and he was the proper Pentagon militarist in portraying the Soviets as godless fiends. But the tone of his speech became fanatical when he attacked some of the religious leaders who are currently straining church-state relations with their talk of disarmament. Their "fashionable pacifism," said Lehman, "cannot and will not lead to peace."

To him, "these few uninformed and overly idealistic religious leaders" are threatening budget priorities "to the disfavor of national defense . . . "

Quoting the Bible and talking like a disciple of James Watt ("My religious beliefs provide vital inspiration to my efforts"), Lehman wants "this danger contained. We must demonstrate that our deepest and most profound religious beliefs and values allow us to say--no, they demand that we say--that we are determined to arm our nation so that freedom will not be crushed."

Lehman's worry is the historical one that unnerves all governments when priests and prophets act up. Kings and presidents from Nebuchadnezzar to Nixon have used the clergy to extend their temporal power. When the threads of politics and religion are snipped by a dissident Amos, Thomas More or Archbishop Romero, the state banishes or slays.

With those choices unavailable, Lehman opted for smears. He called leaders of the emerging peace church naive, uninformed and extremist. And in these times when the nuclear saber is in loud rattle, he tried to level them with what he thought was his oratorical nuke: He linked them to pacifism.

Had Lehman not brought up pacifism, his speech would have rated only as much attention as could be spared another exercise in governmental God-is-on-our-side palaver. But pacifism is at the core of the argument made by the dissenting Christian churchmen. Belatedly they are remembering that theirs is a religion that began when the state first suppressed and then killed Christ, an unarmed pacifist.

Nothing in Lehman's speech suggests that he understands either the nature of pacifism or its application today. It is not a holdover creed of the ancients but is an option of the 20th century--history's most violent to date--that has been taught and practiced by some of our era's enduring giants: Gandhi, Schweitzer, Einstein, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day.

Each has explained that pacifism's nonviolent forms of force--the moral force of well-organized resistance, the intellectual force of creating conditions of international trust, the economic force of sharing wealth--are the only sure deterrents to war.

At this point, militarists like Lehman grab the Bible and flag and say that such talk is fine but armed enemies are out there and we must live in the real world. Forced membership in the Global Nuclear Suicide Club is the real world? That's a nightmare world. The cartoonist Morrie Brickman phrased it well: "I don't know whether the world is full of smart men bluffing or crazy men who mean it." Suspicion mounts that it's the latter.

Pacifists are nobody's fools. They know that evil exists in the world. But they remember that the machos of every nation-state and church-state who have tried to subdue evil with only violence end up with more evil.

The objection is raised: What if we didn't use violence to stop Hitler? Daniel Berrigan, whose pacifist teachings are influencing many of the Catholic bishops that Lehman and other "defense experts" want to keep out of the debate, answers that violence may have stopped Hitler but Hitlerism didn't die in that Berlin bunker. Its spirit persists, whether embodied by dictators of the left or right, or by democratic or communist fuhrers ready to send humanity to the nuclear gas ovens.

That Lehman went into a church to deride pacifism and smear moral leaders was unwittingly appropriate. He has been high in secular pulpits preaching to the Catholic bishops on the theological correctness of calling a nuclear attack submarine Corpus Christi. The bishops unanimously oppose the defamation of the name "Body of Christ." But the 38-year-old Lehman lectures them nevertheless, as though he alone has a hotline to God. The sub could be given other names--Corpus Delecti, the Good Ship Jellybean--but Lehman refuses. He is a man with a mission not merely to lead the Navy but to reform the church itself.