PRESIDENT REAGAN and the Republican Party have defined the stakes in this election in messianic terms. They are offering America a vision -- a vision intended to uplift and inspire us. In the president's words at the Republican Convention: "The choices this year are not just between two different personalities, or between two political parties. They are between two fundamentally different visions of the future, two fundamentally different ways of governing -- their government of pessimism, fear and limits, or ours of hope, confidence and growth."
I am convinced that a choice between visions must be made, but after listening to the president and watching his party's convention I am not "hopeful" or "confident" about the Republican vision. I'm scared. I hear in the president's words the voice of bigotry in the land. I've lived and worked in Washington for 25 years while never being actively involved in politics. But for the first time, I feel the threat of exclusion from my society, my country.
In his speech to the cheering Republican throng, the president said that he was confident that Americans believe they are better off after four years of his rule, that they will not want to return to the past represented by the Democratic Party.
After a hard look at the vision of our president, I do want to return to the past in which human understanding and fellowship replaced the demagogic manipulation of fear. The president's vision gives license to bigotry by denying our history, present realities and my own experience.
Nowhere was his misrepresentations of history more obvious than on the morning of his convention speech. He delivered remarks to a breakfast gathering of religious leaders and laymen in Dallas. He wrongly, for example, alleged that children "are not allowed voluntary prayer" in public schools. As he has before, he ignored the truth that private prayer in school is not an issue and never has been.
In advocating the return of religion to our schools he claimed that in America both the state and society have always been "tolerant of religious belief, expression and practice." If religious bigotry had no roots in our land, as he claimed, I too might feel sanguine about the future. But can our president really be so uninformed?
A casual glance at an American history book tells a much different story. For example: The Puritans hanged Quakers in Massachusetts and they were banned from colonial Virginia on penalty of death; in 1838 the governor of Missouri ordered that all Mormons be "exterminated or driven from the state" and used the state militia to massacre large numbers of believers; Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was jailed by government authorities and lynched by a mob in 1844; a major political party in the 1850s prospered on a platform of opposition to the Catholic Church; prior to the Civil War some states denied the vote to Catholics, Jews and atheists. The story of religious bigotry in America is long and frightening, and all these bloody deeds were done in the name of religion.
If anyone might think that such behavior is a thing of the distant past, I can only recall my own experience growing up in California in the 1950s. In my educated middle- class world it was socially acceptable for Protestants to spread the opinion that all Catholics were traitors and to make up lewd stories about priests and nuns. It was commonplace to hear a real estate broker openly brag that he would not sell property to Jews. And I was driven to tears in school when I was publicly ridiculed for not being a born- again Christian.
The president in his remarks mused, "If children prayed together, would they not understand what they ave in common and would this not indeed bring them closer and is this not to be desired?"
That's not my experience. When I refused, on my mother's orders, to join a lunch-time prayer group in my junior high school, I was told I was going to hell and ostracized by my classmates. That is the way it really works. I can't condemn my tormentors, for they really believed, as part of their religious creed, that I was going to hell and that I should be publicly condemned. The only way I could have been protected without violating their beliefs was to keep the public practice of religion out of the school.
The danger of bigotry in the vision offered by the Republicans in Dallas went beyound religion, however. At the same prayer breakfast, the president rewrote the history of women in America, with a reference to the nation's "founding fathers and mothers."
He blithely ignored the fact that women had not, for reasons of custom and law at he time, been a part of the Constitutional Convention which founded our nation. Of course, it is much easier to argue that the Equal Rights Amendment is not necessary if you pretend that women have always been treated as equals.
Even the symbols the president revered were also revealing. In his convention speech he dramatically offered the image of the Olympic torch being passed across our nation "past the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, down the Santa Fe Trail and alongside Billy the Kid's grave."
In the same hushed tones he linked a hero of our country, who gave his life to the cause of equality and justice, and a murderer. One wonders if he knows the difference. One suspects that for him Billy the Kid is the real hero. So much for the importance of equal rights and justice under the law.
I am frighterned by a man who denies history to defend his ideology. I am frightened by a party that shows no compassion. I am frightened by the vision of America that is being advocated by our president. I wonder how many other Americans will find out that their sex, race, religion or experience place them outside his vision.