In the past week, I have been across the country, from Honolulu to New York City, inspecting some of the 49 states President Reagan carried and meeting and answering questions from some of the people who reelected him.
It is clear from their comments that the "savor the moment" spirit that produced his euphoric victory has survived the phony MiGs-to-Nicaragua scare cooked up by elements of the Reagan administration and the calculated leaks from David Stockman's budget office about horrendous deficits facing the federal government.
The country and its citizens are determined to celebrate this Thanksgiving with unfurrowed brows and, if possible, make the good times last through Christmas and New Year's Day. Time enough, then, to worry.
All this may help explain the rather churlish reaction to the pastoral letter released, in draft form, by a committee of Roman Catholic bishops last week, in which they declared "morally unacceptable" the degree of poverty, unemployment and economic inequality existing in the United States and around the world these days.
From the brethren on the right, including my friends George F. Will and William F. Buckley Jr., and the lions of laissez-faire on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, came cries of foul. Although they had not objected to the bishops' preaching on matters of personal morality to individual candidates, they found fault with the church leaders' speaking on issues of social morality to society as a whole.
At the most unmannerly level, Buckley grumbled about the "lumpen clich,es" and "intellectual slovenliness" of the bishops' statement. At a slightly higher plane of discourse, Will said that they sounded "like just another liberal lobby."
Why this outrage? The ostensible target of the criticism was the bishops' endorsement of a variety of welfare-state meas whose usefulness is questioned not only by the conservatives but by politicians and economists of other ideological hues. The bishops called for steeper rates of progressivity in the income tax, higher minimum-wage and welfare levels and ambitious programs of public-service jobs for the hard-core unemployed -- all of which are matters of legitimate policy debate.
But the reelection of Reagan has removed most of these measures from the list of current political options in any case. The bishops can be criticized for being obtuse in their advocacy, but no one on the right can seriously believe that the measures they endorsed are suddenly going to be embraced by this Congress or this administration.
I think the conservatives' anger with the churchmen has a deeper origin. It reflects the new conservatism's unease at the shaky moral foundations of its own economics. The talisman of their economics is "growth." They like that word better than "greed" or "acquisitiveness," for the later words clearly imply selfishness, while the former conjures up happy pictures of providing something for everyone. If the Pharaohs had had The Wall Street Journal's wise public-relations counsel, they would have forgotten about pyramids and built their monuments in micro-chips.
Yet even these true believers are not prepared to defend unrestrained capitalism as a good in itself. As The Journal put it in its editorial criticizing the bishops' letter: "Modern capitalism is intended to serve the unique goals and needs of individuals . . . (for) upward mobility. . . . And the specific means to all these different personal goals is the individual freedom that capitalism provides in greater meas of economic organization."
That is the equation they would like to prove: capitalism equals freedom equals individual self-perfection. If that is true, then the greater an individual's or nation's wealth, the closer to perfect happiness.
The bishops know better. In conformance with the doctrine and teachings of their faith, they assert that capitalism, like any other human institution, should be judged not just on the criterion of freedom, but of justice and equality as well.
By those criteria, a system that produces -- as ours has in the past half-decade -- greater poverty and greater inequality must be found wanting.
That is a hard message to swallow with the Thanksgiving turkey. It will not go down easily in the America I saw last week. Ronald Reagan was not reelected by people who were questioning the ethic of take more, make more, spend more, get more. This nation is not crying out to have its conscience pricked.
If the bishops had just consulted with the "Tuesday Group" that did the Reagan campaign ads, they would have learned that "it's morning in America." And few people want to think about tomorrow.