By proclaiming 1983 to be "The Year of the Bible," President Reagan presumably means to extend the theme of economic recession into the political and intellectual theaters of operation. When he released his proclamation to a national prayer breakfast, Reagan observed that the Bible holds within its pages "all the answers to all the problems that mankind has ever known."
Last year, Americans bought $170 million worth of Bibles, which suggests that Reagan may have shaped his proclamation to fit the desperate wish for simple answers to the dilemmas of the age. Although the Bible may provide certain truths to all the problems of mankind, revelation is also available by a reading of the Koran, the Confucian Analects, the Homeric poems, Plato's Dialogues and the canon of Shakespeare's plays. The problems to which the Bible speaks have to do with the government of men's souls, not with the government of states.
What, then, does Reagan mean by his proclamation? Surely he cannot suppose that a modern nation-state can dress itself in the rags of Christian humility. Christ's teachings do violence both to the spirit and the flesh of capitalism. Were Reagan to attempt putting the gospels into effect, he would end by forcing the banks to give up the practice of usury and obliging the Pentagon to beat its missiles into plowshares.
Apparently it is not enough that the country in many ways has begun to resemble the industrial ruin of the 1930s. The president proposes to conduct the nation still farther backward in time, roughly to the period between 600 B.C. and 100 A.D.
The question remains as to which of these 700 years the president thinks most suitable for a safe return. Despite the reactionary nature of this administration, it is unlikely that he would find much solace in the earlier years of the Bible's composition. In the days of the Deuteronomist, the kingdom of Israel was very small and no match for the Assyrian empire. When capacity for destruction was measured in chariots, the Assyrians held a massive advantage in the Middle Eastern arms race.
Possibly the president has in mind one of the years during the Greek or Roman occupations. The historical record, however, suggests a fairly steady state of tyranny as well as a perennial and ennobling condition of poverty. Seldom was the kingdom of Israel rich enough to provide its ruler with an arsenal boasting anything more impressive than a few second-hand spears. A comparable defense posture today would invite loud cries of alarm from Sen. Jesse Helms and the Committee on the Present Danger.
Perhaps Reagan refers not to the chronicle of the Old Testament but to the evangel of the New Testament. As with so many of Reagan's oracular statements (cf. "Let Poland Be Poland"), an authoritative interpretation of the text eludes even the friendliest of critics.
The New Testament offers consolation to the victims of an imperial oppression, which, unless Reagan intends a sly reference to the national debt and the bureaucracy, doesn't accurately correspond to the situation of the American electorate. The apostles addressed their remarks to the faithful, who, having lost all hope of happiness in the world, the flesh and the devil, (ie. having cancelled for reasons of penury their memberships in the Playboy and racquet clubs) found comfort in the promise of the redemption awaiting them in the grave.
The comforts revealed by the apostles are not likely to bring gladness into the hearts of the gentlemen at General Motors or the Chase Manhattan Bank. Judging from their statements in the financial sections of the newspapers, these corporate personalities would prefer to underwrite the raising of the cross at Golgotha rather than volunteer either their bodies or their profits to the glory of crucifixion.
Unfortunately, the psalms and lamentations offered by those who put their faith in the Lord are not the same as the sacrifices proposed by the chairmen of the Federal Reserve Board. Reagan conveniently blurs this distinction in his wish to merge the interests of church and state. Like most politicians in trouble with their secular affairs, the president finds it expedient to shift the venue of his politics into the choir loft. Unable to provide enough of the people with a job or a decent hope of the future, Reagan issues prayers and promissory notes on the treasure stored up in heaven.
In distributing heaven's legal tender, Reagan swindles both the premise and the experience of the American democracy. The men who died at Antietam or Guadalcanal held to a nobler faith. They died not in order that their children might be handed Bibles with a salesman's smile, but in order that their children could make their own destiny and their own immortality..