WHEN GEORGE ALLEN was the coach of The Washington Redskins he employed a team chaplain. It was the job of this chaplain to maintain spirit, slap players on the back and invoke the deity in the cause of victory, glory and, presumably, some post-season endorsements.
I am tempted to say that I wondered, when I saw the chaplain go down on bended knee before a game, if God really took sides in these matters -- if, say, He preferred Washington over Dallas and, if so, at what odds. But the truth is that I simply wondered about people who were so sure of the importance of their endeavor, its righteousness and its justice that they could, before the commissioner and a nationwide television audience, call upon God and aid their cause. It is in this context that I bring up Coach Reagan.
Coach Reagan is very fond of invoking the deity in his speeches and his remarks. He has, as we all know, identified himself with the Moral Majority, a group that believes, among other things, that God has especially blessed this nation because He is somewhat partial to it. Reagan himself has never quite put things this way, but he assured us in his inaugural address that "God intended for us to be free," thanked God for the release of the hostages and greeted the returned Americans with the 126th Psalm: "The Lord hath done great things for us; we are glad."
Now one could play devil's advocate and wonder if God meant other nations not to be free, if He should be thanked also for the 444-day ordeal of the hostages, and if Iran has not also benefited from His largesse to the tune of a couple of billion dollars. But the purpose here is not to play wise-guy with a man's religious convictions, but merely to point out that Ronald Reagan is doing precisely the sort of thing that Billy Graham recently warned against. Looking back on his own career, Graham said, "It was a mistake to identify the Kingdom of God with the American way of life."
With Reagan, religion turns red-white-and blue. It becomes a kind of manifest destiny -- something special for Americans. It harnesses God to the service of America and makes this the chosen nation wherein live, I suppose, the chosen people. It puts God to work in the service of patriotism, which is dangerous enough, but it also employs Him in the service of politics, which is, after all, nothing more than the patriotism of the moment.After Reagan finished welcoming the hostages, for instance, you had to buck both the flag and the deity simply to register an objection or another point of view.
It just so happens that I do not have another point of view about the hostages. It just so happens that I think they were wronged and that our nation was wronged also. It seems to me that that is the case and it can be made or refuted on the evidence -- not on an appeal to patriotism or religion.
It also just so happens that the Iranians feel just as strongly about the hostage affair as we do. Of course, they see it totally differently and should you question them, they will respond, as Reagan does, with the flag and God. It is of course their flag and their God. And while there can be many flags, they and we agree that there can be only one God. No matter. They claim Him for their own and they can trot out mullah after mullah to tell you that what they did was approved of and done in His name.
Now far be it for me to get into a dispute about which is the true God and which is His favorite country. I happen to tilt towards America, but I have never seen Iran and I have heard some nice things said about Italy. Choose any one you want. There is no way to settle this debate, but the question need not be debated in the first place. Just to do so puts us in the same boat as the Iranians and with a whole boatload of despotic governments throughout history that thought they were doing the work of God. Idi Amin, after all, is a religious man.
What Reagan ought to do instead is to leave God out of politics and patriotism altogether. All he does by invoking Him is to congest the debate, to give it a sort of religious overtone that compels those a whole lot of sanctimonious rhetoric. But more than that, invoking the deity is another way of saying that this matter or that matter is beyond thought, beyond analysis, that it is a matter of faith and before beyond debate. In a democracy nothing is beyond debate -- not even the presidential use of religion.