Reagan softens rhetoric, not stance, on matters religious

Stung by Democratic attacks on his stand on religion and politics, President Reagan is gingerly stepping back from highlighting religion as a central theme in the election campaign.

Within hours of Walter Mondale's heartfelt address on the subject at the international convention of B'nai B'rith Thursday, the President himself touched on the church-state question at the same meeting.

''The unique thing about America is a wall in our Constitution separating church and state,'' he told the Jewish gathering. ''It guarantees there will never be a state religion in this land but at the same time it makes sure that every single American is free to choose and practice his or her religious beliefs or to choose no religion at all. Their rights shall not be questioned or violated by the state.''

The President mentioned a ''new spiritual awareness'' that he said extended to all religions and beliefs and the importance of religious pluralism in the United States. He also assailed bigotry of any kind. But he devoted the bulk of his speech before the Jewish group to his economic and foreign policy record and to reaffirming America's close ties with Israel.

GOP campaign officials acknowledge that Mr. Reagan is trying to defuse the religion issue. But they blame the Mondale campaign for first raising it (when Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro made a remark that seemed to call into question the President's Christianity) and the news media for ''overblowing'' it.

''Far too much has been made of this,'' said John Buckley, deputy spokesman of the Reagan-Bush reelection committee, before Mondale spoke to B'nai B'rith. ''This is a winning issue for us, and the more Walter Mondale tries to get into the religious issue the more points he will lose, especially in areas where Americans support the President, such as school prayer.''

Mr. Buckley said that the President is not backing away from his basic views or policies and will speak out on them when asked to.

Ever since Reagan's comments in Dallas about the inseparability of religion and politics, the President has come under fire from some religious groups, including the Jewish community, for seeming to breach the wall of separation of church and state. His conspicuous courting of the ''Christian right'' at the recent GOP convention also has aroused public debate.

As Reagan seeks to focus on other issues, religionists and academic scholars suggest that the debate raises three basic questions that tend to get confused in the public mind. Namely:

* Are religion and politics inseparable?

* Does a president overstep the bounds when he plays to specific religious groups?

* Has Ronald Reagan risked breaching the constitutional wall of church-state separation by the specific policies he espouses?

Historically, scholars say, religion has always played an important role in politics. The clergy generated the abolitionist sentiment that led to the Civil War, agitated for the right of labor to strike, and campaigned for and against such issues as prohibition, lotteries, the women's vote, and immigration.

In the 1960s it was the black churches in the South that drove the civil rights movement, and in the 1970s churches began speaking out forcefully on a variety of public issues, including nuclear war. More recently, the Rev. Jesse Jackson pursued the presidential nomination through the churches. And, on the other side of the ideololgical spectrum, the conservative Moral Majority and other ''Christian right'' groups are deeply involved in political action.

''The notion that you can't mix religion and politics is difficult to maintain in the light of the 1960s,'' says A. E. Dick Howard, a constitutional scholar at the University of Virginia. ''Moreover, law and morality are related and it is inescapable that our law is rooted in the Judeo-Christian ethic and conditioned by religious commands.''

For a president to invoke religion is not uncommon or illegitimate, say scholars. The difficulty arises in how a political leader makes a religious statement, to whom he makes it, for what purpose he makes it, and what he implies about those who disagree with him.

Here is where President Reagan invited criticism. He made his remarks about religion and politics before a highly partisan, largely evangelical audience whose support he is wooing. He also stated explicitly that those Americans now concerned about mixing religion and politics are themselves ''intolerant'' of religion.

By seeking votes based on an appeal to distinct religious groups, say many members of the clergy, President Reagan risks promoting religious factionalism and divisiveness.

''Courting the churches does not amount to a violation of church-state separation,'' says Stan L. Hastey, an official of the Joint Baptist Committee. ''But it enters a danger zone for reasons of its potential divisiveness - dividing Americans along religious lines.''

It was in part to avoid dividing the nation into religious factions that the Founding Fathers adopted the First Amendment forbidding the establishment of religion. James Madison was concerned about religious factions, says Professor Howard, and thought that the First Amendment would make such divisiveness less likely.

Ironically, Reagan, before he ran for the presidency, treated religion very much as a private matter. But now, more than any president in recent history, he has intertwined religion and politics by his open embrace of the religious right , his wooing of other denominational groups, especially Roman Catholics, and above all his advocacy of policies that raise constitutional questions of church-state separation.

The religious right, for its part, has become a powerful political force, promoting not only such religious positions as prayer in the schools and aid for parochial schools, but such secular issues as opposition to a nuclear arms treaty and supply-side economics. Organizations like the Moral Majority, the Christian Voice, and the Religious Roundtable were founded in the late 1970s, not by religious leaders, but by a small nucleus of ''New Right'' leaders. It was, for instance, Richard Vigurie who started the ''preachers into politics movement'' and approached the Rev. Jerry Falwell to head up the Moral Majority.

The Reaganites were quick to exploit the new development. They used the fundamentalist right groups as part of their Southern strategy in the 1980. The Moral Majority turned out thousands from the evangelical community to vote for Reagan in November 1980.

This year the religious right is again making itself felt. It was a dominant presence at the Republican convention and heavily influenced the GOP platform. The President addressed a largely evangelical prayer breakfast and called for a more prominent role of religion in government. His campaign chairman, Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, sent letters to thousands of fundamentalist Christian ministers urging them to organize voter-registration drives on behalf of the Reagan-Bush ticket.

However, it is less the President's generalized statements about religion and politics than his specific policies that concern many denominational groups, including mainline Protestants. These policies include support for a constitutional amendment permitting ''voluntary'' prayer in the schools; tuition-tax credits for parents sending their children to parochial and other independent schools; the appointment of an ambassador to the Vatican (already done); and a constitutional ban on abortion.

Such policies, critics say, cross the constitutional boundary and violate the institutional separation of church and state. ''Reagan's policies on church-state issues puts the lie to his claim that he believes in the separation of church and state,'' says Mr. Hastey. ''No one has urged such a blending of church and state.''

Call for a school-prayer amendment is especially disturbing to the Jewish community, which feels it would result in discrimination against Jewish children. ''It not only would violate the constitution, but would not be good public policy,'' says Howard Kohr of the American Jewish Committee.

''Our concern is that a public school system would give sanction to one religion over another. We're sensitive because we're a minority religion.''

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