About a month ago, I gave a speech to the Knights of Columbus on the relationship of our political and social order to religious belief. In order to stimulate discussion of this topic, I stated my position clearly: that the fundamental shape of the American experience cannot be understood without reference to the Judeo-Christian tradition that gave birth to us; that the fate of our democracy is intimately intertwined with the vitality of the Judeo-Christian tradition; that the First Amendment was not intended to result in the complete exclusion of that tradition from our public life; and that a tendency toward such an exclusion is not healthy for our republic.

There has been a vigorous debate on these propositions. I cannot say that I have been persuaded to alter my reading of American history and of the First Amendment; indeed, much that has been written has deepened my conviction -- and, I hope, has convinced others -- that the modern Supreme Court has adopted what the late Mark DeWolfe Howe of Harvard Law School has called "a gravely distorted picture" of the true meaning of the First Amendment.

The heart of this distortion is the refusal to recognize, in the words of the distinguished constitutional historian Edward S. Corwin, that "the historical record shows beyond peradventure that the core of 'an establishment of religion' comprises the idea of preference; and that any act of public authority favorable to religion in general cannot, without manifest falsification of history, be brought under the ban of that phrase." In other words: our political order has never been simply neutral toward, or separate from, religion. Justice William O. Douglas was right when he said, in 1962: "We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. . . . When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions."

This current debate has been a good thing. It is nice to see discussion of our tradition -- of the Founders and Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. -- in our daily newspapers. It is heartening to read serious accounts of the deliberations of the First Congress or of the role of religion in our national history. Taking these questions seriously is a sign of political health and intellectual vigor.

And yet some of the reactions to my remarks are less encouraging. For some speak as if those of us who call attention to the claims of religion and the Judeo-Christian tradition are partisans of intolerance and bigotry.

Thus my criticism of the Supreme Court decision impeding aid to needy students in parochial schools has led some to say that I am illegitimately trying to promote my "brand of Christianity," and that I think of myself as a messenger "heaven-sent to silence the heathen." My support of voluntary prayer in our public schools -- or of allowing the posting of the Ten Commandments in a classroom -- makes me an "ayatollah." In sum, my position is characterized as an invitation to "Khomeinism and Kahaneism."

This whole line of argument -- if one can call it that -- might in fact be described as a reductio ad Khomeini. It assumes that my statement of this nation's commitment to the principles of tolerance and equal rights for all -- for the believer and no less for the non-believer -- is mere window dressing. More importantly, it ignores my statement that "no one demands doctrinal adherence to any religious beliefs as a condition of citizenship, or as proof of good citizenship, here." Some of my critics seem to believe that Americans are a people primed for a campaign of intolerant oppression, led by "the sectarian elites of religious fundamentalism." And they assume that describing the intimate relationship between the Judeo-Christian tradition and our public life is a step down the path toward Lebanon, or Iran.

This vision seems to me to say more about its beholders than about America. America is both religious and tolerant; what the American experience shows is that one of these qualities need not flourish at the expense of the other.

The real danger, I think, is an impoverishing of our public life by a disdain for religion. We need not distance ourselves from some of our best beliefs and traditions in order to protect the First Amendment. Justice Douglas put it well some 30 years ago: If the First Amendment is interpreted to mean that "in every and all respects there shall be a separation of church and state," then "the state and religion would be aliens to each other -- hostile, suspicious, and even unfriendly."

This is a danger we should avert. This is a danger we can avert, by an honest reconsideration of the historic role of religion in our free society. But such a reconsideration will be difficult if the debate is successfully foreclosed by those who equate the call for such a debate with "Khomeinism."