REMINDED of his famous characterization of the Soviet Union as an ``evil empire'' during a conversation with reporters at the summit, President Reagan was quick to push that comment aside as ``another time, another era.'' But amid the heartening talk of friendship and cooperation between the superpowers, the President has also seen fit to drum rather loudly on the issue of human rights. Why? Is it leftover clanging from that ``other era''? Or just Mr. Reagan playing to his conservative constituency back home?
An element of the latter may be present, but there's a good deal more to the human rights theme than that. Freedom of speech, assembly, and religious practice are fundamental. And a lasting thaw in the relationship between the United States and the nation that, for the last four decades, Americans have generally viewed as their chief adversary will require a mutual understanding and observance of those freedoms.
Uneasiness about the Soviet Union rests less on state ownership of the means of production and the possible export of that system, after all, than on its long history of state restrictions on individual liberty.
Those restrictions, clearly, are loosening under Mikhail Gorbachev. Debate and dialogue appear to be flourishing in the Soviet press. Emigration has increased. Some churches have been allowed to set up their own presses and operate charities - though religious instruction of children is still severely restricted, and believers face curtailed opportunity in education and the workplace. While political pluralism, including contested elections and a multiparty system, is discussed on a theoretical level - fledgling movements like the Democratic Union are harassed.
Even more to the heart of things, the Soviet people themselves may, as yet, have little tolerance for social and political nonconformity. A poll of Muscovites taken last week indicated low awareness of the repressive aspects of their own system. Protesters and refusedniks are not apt to be held in much higher esteem by average Soviet citizens than by their leaders, who regularly characterize such individuals as ``parasites.''
Though attitudes are evolving, ``human rights'' in the Soviet lexicon is still likely to have the narrow meaning of access to work, shelter, and food - in other words, the right to have basic needs met. That definition has its application in Western societies, too. Mr. Gorbachev is correct in pointing out that greater attention needs to be paid those ``rights'' in the US.
Reagan, for his part, is justified in pointing out the failure of Soviet society to protect the fundamental rights that feed and strengthen human beings spiritually, not just materially. Some worry that the President's playing on this theme could damage his Soviet counterpart's laudable reform thrust. But the general secretary's rebuke of Reagan's ``sermonizing'' may in fact help him, showing doubters he's not ``soft.''
The human rights issue is a necessary part of the developing dialogue between the United States and the Soviet Union. It has been a major factor in keeping them apart, and progress on human rights should be a factor in building understanding and peace between them.