Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at the Centennial Meeting of the Supreme Council of the Knights of Columbus in Hartford, Connecticut

August 03, 1982

Supreme Knight Dechant, I thank you for those very generous words.

Your Eminence Cardinal Casaroli, Your Eminences, Excellencies, reverend clergy, members of the Knights of Columbus, and the guests here today:

I want to begin by saying how grateful I am that you've asked me here to participate in the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Knights of Columbus.

Now, it isn't true that I was present at the first anniversary. [Laughter] But a few years back, when I was a Governor, I was privileged to be a Chubb Fellow at Yale University, and I was staying just around the corner in those few days from a sturdy-looking stone church where the events that bring us here today first began. It was there in the basement of St. Mary's Church on Hillhouse Avenue that Father McGivney and a few dedicated parishioners started an organization that would grow beyond any of their imaginings.

Today, the spires of a great university can still be seen on the New Haven skyline, but there is another dominant presence: four huge towers of the national headquarters of the Knights of Columbus, a group that has grown to over 1.3 million members and comprises the largest Catholic fraternal society in the world.

Much has happened to Father McGivney's dream since 1882, and much good has flowed from that church basement on Hillhouse Avenue. The Knights of Columbus is unrivaled in its dedication to family, community, country, and church. And your corporal and spiritual works of mercy for those in need are both a legend and an example to your countrymen. In the single year of 1981, you made in charitable contributions more than $41 million and, even more important, devoted more than 10 million hours in community service.

As important as your works of charity are, however, you have also maintained individually and corporately your stalwart faith in religious and family values. Through activities such as the Catholic Information Service, you've stood unhesitatingly for these values. And that's why, for example, in the 1920's, long before the cause was taken up by others, you were earnestly working for an end to racial and ethnic prejudice in America, fighting for justice for blacks and for Jews as well as for Catholics. And today you bring this same fervor to your work on behalf of the American family and your religious values. In doing so you provide inspiration to a world seeking desperately to find men who can make the message of the Gospel a reality in their lives and times.

During those early twenties a motion picture, a movie, revolutionized motion picture making. It was an historic milestone in the technology of that industry—D. W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation." Well, that picture came to our town—I was just a boy-but my father, who was a Knight, said it was a picture about the Ku Klux Klan, and we would not see it. Well, to this day, and after more than a quarter of a century in that motion picture industry, I still have never seen it and have no intention of seeing it.

During the last campaign I spoke frequently of these crucial values of family, work, neighborhood, religion, and personal freedom. Now, some pundits claim that this was an attempt to appeal to various ethnic or religious voting blocs. I saw it as a simple recognition of the values that most Americans, whatever their ethnic, racial, or religious heritage, hold dear.

Now, in pointing out this tendency of some commentators to focus on only the immediate or the political I don't mean to sound too critical. Actually the American press does a remarkable job of piecing together quite clearly, and sometimes in a matter of hours or minutes, the dizzying events of this modern world. Yet I think the very speed of this process can oftentimes cloud the understanding and serve as an obstacle to good judgment and historical perspective.

It would have been hard, for example, for any reporter covering those first meetings of the Knights of Columbus in St. Mary's basement to have sensed the potential importance of Father McGivney and his small band of Catholic laymen. But as the history of the Knights of Columbus has proven, discussions of our basic values are a vital part of our national political dialog, for it's only in these values, only in the faith that sees beyond the here and now, that we find the rationale for our own daring notions about the inalienable rights of free men and women.

This faith in the dignity of the individual under God is the foundation for the whole American political experiment. It is central to our national politics. Our first President put it very well. He said, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity," Washington said, "religion and morality are indispensable supports." And, incidentally, to those who suggest that the two could be separated, he further pointed out that morality could not really be sustained or widely observed without religion.

There can be no freedom without order, and there is no order without virtue. Now, that's a simple enough formulation, but it's an insight found not only in the writings of Founding Fathers like Washington or great political thinkers like Edmund Burke; it is also found in a great part of our Judeo-Christian tradition—notably in the modern encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and John Paul II. Yet how often this simple truth, the importance of this belief in basic values, is overlooked in a society of high technology and mass communication and bewildering, everyday events.

I guess what I'm trying to say was put very well by that great Catholic essayist G. K. Chesterton when he warned about the modern habit of those who try to put the heavens in their heads rather than their heads in the heavens. Or as Alfred North Whitehead observed, "There is a danger in clarity, the danger of overlooking the subtleties of truth."

Those subtleties of truth—the belief in the importance of the family, of community and church—the realization that the Western ideas of freedom and democracy spring directly from the Judeo-Christian religious experience—are not often publicly discussed. Yet they

Every place I go lately there's an echo.1 [Laughter]

These things that are publicly discussed still remain the foundation for our concepts of social justice, our political system, our very way of life. They are the values that ennoble man, making him something more than just the plaything of hedonism or the vassal of dictatorship; they entitle him to personal dignity and to the individual liberty and representative government that dignity enjoins.

Now, perhaps some of you remember that just a few years ago these basic values were being forgotten in the highest levels of our government. Indeed, the machinery of government at times actively opposed them. Government intrusion into the life of the family and the local neighborhood—federally financed abortions, forced busing, HEW regulations and rules on many matters that government had no business dealing with—had reached unparalleled heights.

In a similar vein, the prerogatives of local communities and State governments were slowly being eroded as more and more decisions were made in Washington, and government grew ever more distant and beyond control of the people. Federal spending sent inflation skyrocketing and the tax burden increasing to the point where rewards for honest work and extra initiative were evaporating.

It is this latter problem that we had to confront when we came to Washington 18 months ago. In the last 10 years, Federal spending had tripled. In the last 5 years, Federal taxes had doubled. The philosophy of government seemed to be tax and tax, spend and spend. Now, no one can quarrel with the motive behind all this. It was well-intentioned and done in the name of humanity. The budget for the Department of Health and Human Services became the third largest budget in the world, right after the entire national budgets of the United States and the Soviet Union. The Federal debt reached $1 trillion, and our interest payments on that debt, in the range of a hundred billion dollars, are more than the entire Federal budget of about 20 years ago.

You know, I have to stop and interject here that, as I said before, this was all done with the best of intentions, all of this was designed to help. But when you set out to help, you'd better have a pretty good idea of what you're doing.

You know, there was a fellow riding a bicycle one cold winter day—motorcycle, I should say. The wind coming in through the buttons of his leather jacket were chilling him, and finally he stopped, turned the jacket around, put it on backwards, took off again. Well, that solved the wind problem, but he hit a patch of ice; his arms were kind of restricted; he skidded into a tree. And when the police got there and elbowed their way through the crowd that had gathered and they said, "What happened?" They said, "We don't know. When we got here, he seemed to be all right. But by the time we had his head turned around straight, he was dead." [Laughter]

Well, since we've been in Washington, we've tried and, I believe, have brought an historic change to Washington. I can assure you we've replaced that old doctrine of tax and tax, spend and spend with a new philosophy that says that there is one overriding cause for our economic troubles: Government is too big, and it spends too much money.

Now, I know that you've heard and read a variety of accounts almost every day of what we're trying to do, many of them quoting unnamed but highly placed sources in the White House. Now, I wonder if you'd put up with another account, this time from a highly placed source who doesn't mind if you know his name. [Laughter]

To begin with, what we call our economic recovery program has already cut the rate of growth in Federal spending nearly in half. And it has already cut away billions in taxes for individuals and businesses. And, for the first time in history, taxes are going to be indexed to the rate of inflation, a reform that takes away government's hidden profit from inflation.

We have cut through the growing thicket of Federal regulations that was stifling business and industrial growth. Vice President Bush heads up a task force that deals with this. And already we've made savings of nearly $6 billion annually, just in changing regulations. And this year alone, there will be 200 million fewer man-hours of paperwork imposed on American citizens.

Our economic recovery program has been in effect for only 10 months, but its impact has already been felt. Last quarter's rise in the gross national product is an encouraging sign. Our dollar is stronger than it's been in 10 years. Inflation, which a little more than a year ago was the number one economic concern of most Americans, has taken an impressive turn for the better and, in the last 6 months, has run at less than half of what it was in 1980. And we're going to keep it going down.

We brought to individual Americans the first comprehensive tax cut they've had since John F. Kennedy's tax cut 20 years ago. And, incidentally, some of the critics of ours were criticizing him then for trying to do what he did.

We said we were going to cut spending, reduce the tax burden, rebuild our national defenses, strive for legitimate arms reductions, and be firm with totalitarian powers. And I believe the record shows we have kept those promises. But our promises about working to clean up the Federal fiscal mess and cut the size of government were not made just in order to get the economy moving again, as important as that is. Government can't interfere with economic freedom without restricting the political and personal freedom of individual Americans. That's what we mean to restore.

John Stuart Mill put it very well: "A state which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficent purposes, will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished." The intrusive hand of government can only hinder creativity, stultify growth, and suffocate enterprise, initiative, and diversity. Our goal is to take government out of areas where it does not belong so that it can properly perform its traditional and legitimate functions.

That's why we support and endorse a program of tuition tax credits, so that our independent schools and our country as a whole will prosper. We need diversity and excellence. As economist Thomas Sowell has suggested, these tuition tax credits are especially important "to those who are mentioned the least: the poor and the working class." As the cost of education has skyrocketed, it is these groups that have been particularly hard hit by the double burden of supporting private and public schools.

And let me add here that far from being a threat to the public school system, these tax credits will serve only to raise the standards of the competing school systems. As a New York Times editorial pointed out recently, the mere threat of tax credits "served to jolt public education out of its lethargy. In New York and other places, public schools now show encouraging signs of improvement."

This proposal for tax relief is now before the Congress. And I was just told this morning by Senator Dole that he has agreed to start markup on the tuition tax credit bill this coming Monday. Our administration wants this bill passed. The Knights of Columbus want this bill passed. And I believe the voters, next November, will demonstrate that they want this bill passed.

I, also, strongly believe, as you have been told, that the protection of innocent life is and has always been a legitimate, indeed, the first duty of government. And, believing that, I favor human life. And I believe in the human life legislation. The Senate now has three proposals on this matter from Senators Hatch, Helms, and Hatfield. The national tragedy of abortion on demand must end. I'm urging the Senate to give these proposals the speedy consideration they deserve.

A Senate committee hearing was held recently to determine, if we can, when life actually begins. And there was exhaustive testimony of experts presenting both views, and finally the result was declared inconclusive. They couldn't arrive at an answer. Well, in my view alone, they did arrive at an answer, an answer that justifies the proposed legislation. If it's true we don't know when the unborn becomes a human life, then we have to opt in favor that it is a human life until someone proves it isn't. As many of you know, our administration has also strongly backed an amendment that will permit school children to hold prayer in our schools. We believe that school children deserve the same protection, the same constitutional consensus that permits prayer in the Houses of Congress, chaplains in our armed services, and the motto on our coinage that says, "In God We Trust." I grant you, possibly we can make a case that prayer is needed more in Congress than in our schools, but— [laughter] .—

I wonder, though, how many of you, how many citizens know how far the courts have gone with regard to this subject. Do they know, for example, that in one case where children in a school cafeteria simply on their own wanted to say grace before lunch, the court ruled they were prohibited from doing that? Children who sought—again, on their own initiative and with their parents' approval—to begin the school day with a 1-minute prayer meditation were forbidden to do so. And some students who wanted to join in prayer or religious study on school property even outside of regular class hours were also forbidden to do so.

I think you will agree with me—we need a prayer amendment, and we need it badly. We are supposed to have freedom of religion. Nothing in the Constitution says freedom from religion.

The Congress also has before it now an omnibus crime bill whose provisions on bail reform, sentencing procedure, and criminal forfeiture are critical to our attempt to fight the growing problem of crime. We need that bill. It's critical to our efforts to control organized crime and the trade in illegal drugs and the street-corner criminals who promote that trade.

Let me also say, I'm very aware of your concern about the enforcement of obscenity statutes. A representative of the K of C met last week in Washington with members of my staff on this matter, and let me assure you, when I get back to the Capital, I'll be taking this up with Attorney General Smith.

A few moments ago I used the term "historic change" with regard to our domestic policies. Well, I think this kind of change has been duplicated in the foreign area as well. We've rejected the view that the world is faced with the impossible dilemma of either fighting a nuclear war or caving in to totalitarian rule. Contrary to what followers of Marx and Lenin would have us believe, we're not hopelessly buffeted by the tides and currents of history, for history is not the stuff of impersonal forces or unalterable laws. Free men and women, inspired by their deeply held beliefs and values, are capable of turning those tides of history and setting them running again in the cause of freedom.

And that is why this administration takes second place to none in the quest for peace through arms control and agreements. Now, many of the proposals we hear today for a nuclear freeze are obsolete. In our proposal for the elimination of ground-based, intermediate-range missiles and in a recent onethird reduction proposal for strategic nuclear ballistic warheads, we've gone far beyond the sterile idea of a freeze. A freeze might be fine after we've had a complete removal of the most threatening intermediate-based missiles and deep reductions in the number of strategic weapons, verifiable reductions.

The House of Representatives has before it now two resolutions on the nuclear freeze matter. One resolution, I regret to say, would, if passed, send a signal to the Soviet Union that we're willing to accept something less than these reductions that I spoke about. Indeed, this resolution would leave in place dangerous inequalities in the nuclear balance and would attempt to return us to the flawed SALT II agreement.

On the other hand, a resolution proposed by Congressmen Broomfield, Carney, and Stratton would avoid these dangers and, if it is passed, would act as an incentive to persuade the Soviet Union to agree to mutual reductions. I strongly support the Broomfield, Carney, and Stratton resolution.

As I mentioned, our arms control proposals are now the matter of delicate negotiations with the Soviet Union. But let me say this to you: The fact that the largest Catholic fraternal organization has spoken out strongly through your magazine Columbia on the morality of maintaining our strategic deterrence has been a great asset to our efforts for peace, and I thank you.
Let me also add that I'm very grateful for the support you've given us on the matter of our attempts to bring stability, peace, and freedom to Latin America, especially in El Salvador. Only a few months ago, more than a million peasants and workers faced threats and bullets to vote in a free election there. They offered eloquent testimony to the appeal of democracy, to the rightness of our support of their desire to resist that tiny cadre of revolutionaries who want to plunge the Salvadoran people into the darkness of godless Communist rule.

Our foreign policy has changed in one other important way. For many years, American foreign policy has suffered from a defensive posture, a shyness about the values and beliefs that form the heart of our political consensus and our civilization. Well, we're on the defensive no longer. The Soviet Union has challenged us to open competition in the realm of ideas and values, and we intend to take up that challenge. That is why when I recently spoke to the British Parliament, I called for a worldwide crusade for freedom and a global campaign for democracy.

As part of this forward strategy for freedom, I recently had the pleasure of signing in a public ceremony for the first time in history the Captive Nations Week proclamation. I did so as a reminder of the suffering of those who live under totalitarian rule and as an expression of our hope that someday all the people of the world will live in freedom.

Now, I must say, my remarks on this occasion have not drawn rave reviews from the Soviet press. In fact, Pravda suggested that my remarks were hysterical and the work of an intellectual pygmy. [Laughter] And a Polish newspaper under the martial law there called it a cesspool of invectives, insults, and insinuation. Well, now, naturally, as a former actor, I'm somewhat sensitive about press notices like that. [Laughter] But you're probably wondering what upset our adversaries so. Well, the truth is, what upset them the most was a quotation I used from Lech Walesa, the now-imprisoned head of Solidarity in Poland.

In an interview published here before his confinement, Lech Walesa spoke of the "wheat that grows on the stones," of how brutal repression only seems to strengthen the hope and hunger of those who long for freedom. He said about Poland's Communist rulers, "Our souls contain exactly the contrary of what they wanted. They wanted us not to believe in God, and our churches are full. They wanted us to be materialistic and incapable of sacrifice; we are antimaterialistic and capable of sacrifice. They wanted us to be afraid of the tanks, of the guns, and instead we don't fear them at all."

In these words, I think we find the justification for the importance of the values of family, community, and religion, and some of the changes we've made in Washington during the last 18 months.

When I visited him last June in Rome, His Holiness Pope John Paul II spoke of his profound hope that the "entire structure of American life will rest ever more securely on the strong foundation of moral and spiritual values. Without the fostering and defense of these values, all human advancement is stunted, and the very dignity of the human person," he said, "is endangered."

I would suggest to you today that nowhere in the world is there a more splendid affirmation of this connection between religious values and political freedom than in the ideals, the faith, and the heroism of the Polish people and the leaders of Solidarity.

We hope and we pray today for a time when the people of Poland and all of the peoples on Earth will join the people of America in celebrating the joys of freedom-and speak together in pride and dignity of the wheat that grows on stones.

God bless you, and thank you very much.

1 The President was referring to heckling from a member of the audience.

Note: The President spoke at 2:45 p.m. in the Hartford Civic Center Coliseum. He was introduced by Virgil Dechant, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus.

Earlier in the day, the President met at the Hartford Hotel with the members of the board of directors of the Knights of Columbus. He then held a working luncheon with Agostino Cardinal Casaroli, Secretary of State of Vatican City.

Following his appearance at the meeting, the President returned to Washington, D.C.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Centennial Meeting of the Supreme Council of the Knights of Columbus in Hartford, Connecticut Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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