The year is 1987, and the Reagan administration, heading into the sunset, has completed a coup d'etat (actually, more of a coup de department) that has even its harshest critics reeling with admiration. It took two years to get all the mechanisms and people in place (fast by Washington standards), but just before Congress recessed for August, the administration rammed through a bill making it official: The Department of Education was being renamed the Department of Religion.

The president, who had threatened to veto a congressional pay raise if the bill didn't go through, was elated: A campaign promise to get rid of the Department of Education had been fulfilled and he'd finally gotten government jobs for some of his most earnest supporters. His place in history as a man who kept his word was assured. Moreover, he'd finally found a way to shut up some of the magpies on the lunatic fringe so his final year in the White House could be spent in peace.

William Bennett, who as secretary of Education had called for a national debate on religion and become the standard-bearer in the drive to reaffirm the linkage between democracy and the Judeo-Christian ethic, was named to head the new department. The Vatican sent him a warm note of congratulations, as did the Rev. Jerry Falwell, head of the Moral Majority. The Washington press corps noted that the tone of Falwell's message was lukewarm and speculated that he had wanted to be secretary of Religion. Falwell issued a statement saying that he could not abandon his television ministry, and besides, he didn't need the pay cut that goes along with government service.

The department was divided into bureaus reflecting the interests of the major religions in the United States: The department's table of organization called for a bureau for Catholic Affairs, a bureau for the Moral Majority, a bureau for Southern Baptists, a bureau for Jewish Affairs, a Protestant bureau, a Mormon bureau, and, to the dismay of most of the above, a Unitarian Affairs bureau. ("That," growled Phyllis Schlafly, the president's nominee to head the Conservative Catholic Division of the Catholic Affairs Bureau, "is all the Unitarians ever do. Have affairs.")

The bureau breakdown set off a storm of protest by the religious groups that were not given bureau status. Jim Bakker, head of Praise the Lord, the prosperous religious group that uses television extensively, sent an angry wire to Secretary Bennett. Shortly thereafter, Bakker was named head of the department's newly created communications division, which was charged with identifying the most effective methods for marketing religion.

Followers of Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh came from Oregon by the busload to picket the Religion Department. They carried placards saying: "Religion Without Representation!" and vowed to maintain picket lines until the sect was granted bureau status.

"That'll happen when hell freezes over," Bennett declared at a press conference. "Those people are absolute whackos."

Christopher C. Sundseth was named to head the division of congressional liaison and correspondence. Sundseth, an administration appointee in the Treasury Department, vaulted from obscurity in August 1985 when it was revealed that he was answering citizens' letters to the government about Christian issues. He answered one by calling the letter writer an "amazing, pathetic creature," and by adding a postscript warning: "When you die, you will be giving account to Jesus Christ, your creator, who happens himself to be a Christian. I hope you are prepared."

Tim LaHaye, author of the seminal work, "Battle for the Family," was named to head the general counsel's office, which was given the task of rooting out secular humanist teachers. Their names were to be referred to the Justice Department for possible prosecution.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit, charging that the department's existence violated the separation between church and state. The Supreme Court, packed with Reagan appointees, refused to hear the case. Leaders of feminist organizations held a press conference to decry the lack of female appointees in the department. Only two reporters showed up.

President Reagan, faced with another $200 billion deficit, left for California for his annual vacation. Before he left, however, he ordered the Department of Religion to begin addressing what he called the "most pressing issue of our time." When he returned he wanted a report on his desk that would answer the question: "If Jesus Christ were alive today, what church would he belong to?"