Like a college sophomore griping about an F on his term paper, William Bennett has been crying about the low grades he has been getting for a recent speech to the Knights of Columbus. The secretary of education, who was using the speech to join Brothers Helms and Falwell in promoting prayer in public schools, told the Knights that "the fundamental shape of the American experience cannot be understood without reference to the Judeo-Christian tradition that gave birth to us."

America is religious, Bennett says, and the First Amendment "was not intended to result in the complete exclusion of that tradition from our public life."

Following the negative reaction to the speech, Bennett attacked his critics by creating the appearance that they were attacking religion. "The real danger," he said, "is an impoverishing of our public life by a disdain for religion."

The ploy doesn't work. Bennett might have avoided criticism the same way college sophomores, on their good days, can avoid Fs: by defining the terms. What does he mean by "the Judeo-Christian tradition"? Dozens, or probably hundreds, of definitions are available. Bennett has his, I have mine, others have theirs.

Bennett believes that this tradition "gave birth to us." Really? If we go back to the birth period, it was more savagery than sanctity at work. For one example, in 1637 a small expedition of 80 armed Plymouth colonists went southeast from their Massachusetts base. They passed Narragansett Bay to an area that is now Groton, Conn. There the land-hungry religious group attacked the Pequot tribe.

The natives were marked for extermination. Pequot men, women and children were slain. One historian wrote that during the height of the massacre, the professional soldier leading the white men shouted, "God is over us!" This was also, the historian wrote, "the pious conviction of Cotton Mather, who wrote later that he supposed 'no less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day.' "

The pious Bible-bearing Judeo-Christians from Plymouth searched out the remaining Pequots. Most were butchered, the rest sent in chains to Bermuda to die in slavery. The historian summarized: "Within a few weeks, a strong and brave tribe of Indians, whose culture was not inconsiderable, simply disappeared from human affairs."

This and numerous other bloody parts of our tradition are ignored by the dispensers of God-on-Our-Side myths. It is a version of the We're-Number-One style of Americanism now surging. The debate about school prayer can be argued without appealing, as Bennett does, to a distorted history and a falsely prettified image of how religious we were.

Sanctimonious public officials who lean on religion to make their case deserve nothing more than suspicion. They have an agenda, not a vision. Bennett is on a long list of conservative propagandists who declare themselves the doers of God's work and their opponents "the real danger."

The breed has been on hand for some time. In his 1899 essay "Letter to a Corporal," Tolstoy wrote that "governments, to have a rational foundation for the control of the masses, are obliged to pretend that they are pro- fessing the highest religious teachings known to man . . . The distortion of Christianity took place long ago, in the time of the malefactor, Emperor Constan- tine, who for this was canonized a saint. All subsequent governments, especially our own Russian government, have tried with all their strength to maintain this distortion and not to allow the masses to see the true meaning of Christianity."

What is the true meaning? For Tolstoy and many others, it is nonviolence, sharing the wealth fairly, the elimination of armies, forgiveness of enemies and total trust in God's mercy. No government in Tolstoy's time was remotely faithful to that meaning of Christianity, nor is any in ours.

In defending himself, Bennett brings up the name of Martin Luther King Jr. as an ally. Few Americans of this century were more vocal in arguing that the United States was often a betrayer of Judeo-Christian ideals. He said in Riverside Church in New York a year before his death: "I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values . . . A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

It could be that Tolstoy and King are wrong, and Bennett is right. The latter is about as possible as a revisionist trying to claim that the American colonists saw the Indians as Judeo-Christian brothers.