Secretary of Education William Bennett, who has emerged as the main advocate of the Reagan administration position on religion in the schools, recently demanded "a national conversation and debate on the place of religious belief in our society."
And in the Aug. 7 speech to the Knights of Columbus in which he issued the call, Bennett spoke with sufficient provocation to guarantee that he will get his debate.
According to Bennett, who rarely resorts to understatement, "the fate of our democracy is intimately intertwined . . . with the vitality of the Judeo-Christian tradition." He therefore finds it alarming that "a new aversion to religion," disguised as constitutional interpretation, has "beguiled" the judges and in four decades of error led to "a kind of ghettoizing of religion."
Moreover, "neutrality to religion turned out to bring with it a neutrality to those values that issue from religion." Nowadays, "entanglement" with religion (in the term of art frequently used in Supreme Court decisions) is viewed as "something akin to entanglement with an infectious disease." As a result of all these dangerous trends, America faces "a new source of divisiveness: the assault of secularism on religion."
This is strong language, possibly divisive in itself. Certainly Bennett has launched a no- holds-barred assault on the line of church-state doctrine developed by the Supreme Court since 1947, the latest manifestation of which was its July decision in the Michigan and New York parochial aid cases.
There is a disturbingly theocratic tenor in Bennett's views, though doubtless it would be unfair to say that in arguing for tax aid to religious education he is arguing, in effect, for official religious indoctrination.
But it is equally a distortion for the secretary to claim -- in the non sequitur that binds his dubious argument together -- that anyone who favors strict separation of church and state is animated by some new, militant brand of "secularism."
Such a characterization fails to account for all, or even most, of the traditional resistance to parochial aid (and sectarian religious exercises in the public schools) by such bodies as the National Council of Churches; such denominations as the Baptists, Quakers and Jews; and such eminent churchmen (who are hardly to be called spokesmen for "secularism") as the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and the president of Georgetown University, an eminent Jesuit priest.
As for Bennett's underlying premise that U.S. democracy derives from, and depends on, the official propagation of Judeo-Christian values, it is at best problematical, belonging to that class of sweeping assertions to which the intelligent and historicaresponse can only be: yes and no.
Yes, in the sense that Western conceptions of individual rights and liberty descend to us from the Medieval schoolmen, who incidentally borrowed the idea of natural rights from classical pre-Christian philosophers. And yes, in the sense that Western democracy emerged -- painfully, with much sectarian bloodshed and disgraceful oppression of the weak and defenseless, especially the Jews -- within the fold and bosom of Christendom.
But in equally weighty senses, no -- an emphatic No. The preponderant religious influence at the time of the framing of the Constitution was neither prophetic nor evangelical, as is the conception of public religion favored by this administration and its spokesmen, but cool, dignified, rationalist and deist.
That presumably explains why the preamble to the Constitution makes no declaration of democracy's dependency on godliness, Judeo- Christian or otherwise. Indeed, if you suppose, with Secretary Bennett, that the Framers were vitally concerned with this link, they were oddly selective. They left us no constitutional directive concerning religion, saving only the directive that no religious test for office shall ever be imposed. Strictly construed, that can only mean that if a Buddhist or Muslim or atheist musters the necessary votes, he or she can hold any U.S. office within the gift of the people.
It is also inconvenient, from Bennett's perspective, that in the leading contemporary treatise on the intentions of the Framers -- the Federalist Papers -- there are far more, and more extensive, references to the pagan Greek and Roman experience with self-government than to the "Judeo-Christian tradition."
None of which is to disparage the complexity of the issue. It is to say, rather, that if the Reagan administration seeks a real debate (as distinguished from a propaganda war), it will have to stow the soapbox and review its history.