God talk

Two weeks ago in this space we welcomed Senator Joseph Lieberman’s candidacy for vice president, noting that it broke down at least two barriers in American public life. As the first Jew nominated for a national ticket by a major party, Lieberman’s candidacy, like Al Smith’s and John F. Kennedy’s, potentially opens the highest offices in the land to a member of a previously excluded group. Almost as important, however, is the fact that Lieberman is a religiously observant person known for speaking frankly and eloquently about the ways in which his faith informs his political life. On both counts, Lieberman promises to expand and reinvigorate the nation’s political conversation. From concerns about the moral tenor of popular entertainment to basic questions of social justice, religion can shape the public debate for the better and help keep that debate civil. And as a member of a minority religion, Lieberman can speak about faith in a way that doesn’t raise the specter of coercion.

Not everyone has been equally enthusiastic about Lieberman’s frequently voiced conviction that public life has more to gain than to lose from attending to the religious concerns of citizens. Shortly after our last issue went to press, Lieberman was assailed first by the Anti-Defamation League and then by the editorial pages of the Washington Post and New York Times along with other self-appointed guardians of the "wall" of separation between church and state. Specifically, critics charged Lieberman with moral overreaching and religious pandering in a speech he gave from the pulpit of a black church in Detroit August 27. "As a people we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God’s purpose," Lieberman had said. "There must be a place for faith in American public life."

The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish antidiscrimination group, promptly demanded Lieberman refrain from "overt expressions" of religious faith. "We do not think that religion belongs in the political campaign and the political arena," the organization said in a letter to the candidate. The New York Times accused Lieberman of "crossing the boundaries of tolerance" by linking morality to religion, and observed with foreboding that "there should never be any compromise with the Constitution’s ban on government establishment of religion." Needless to say, Lieberman’s critics, mostly from the secular liberal end of the political spectrum, have long objected to the way the right wing injects religion into politics and were anxious to acquit themselves of a double standard when it came to Lieberman.

Although Lieberman is sensitive to these concerns, as he should be, he has not been deterred. In truth, the criticism is predictable and misguided, and just as knee-jerk as liberal scorn for religious conservatives. Lieberman has repeatedly voiced his commitment to the separation of church and state, and he has been careful to avoid justifying specific public policy positions by an appeal to religion. The notion that a politician’s evoking "God’s purpose" while speaking in a church risks an establishment of religion is nearly as comical as it is absurd. Critics hasten to assure us that they welcome the way Lieberman’s strong religious faith is manifest in his political life; they just want him to keep quiet about it. But it is hard to imagine how religion is to contribute to our public life if religion is not to be spoken of in public. As Lieberman himself has put it, "the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."

Of course religion, like the threat of crime or the scope of defense spending or any other neuralgic issue, can be exploited for political ends. Demagoguery is always a danger. It does not follow, however, that the danger is best combated by quarantining the suspect. Religious claims must be subject to the same scrutiny and criticism as any other voice seeking to influence public policy. By the same token, dogmatic opponents of religion’s public role should stop crying "separation of church and state" every time a reference to religion pops out of a politician’s mouth in a crowded theater or church. The danger some liberal groups perceive in the public expression of religion is not warranted constitutionally or historically, and is often little more than prejudice.

Religion has played an essential, even predominant, role in shaping American democracy from its founding documents, in the abolitionist movement, and through the modern human rights era. To the extent we judge that democracy a success, religion should get a fair share of the credit. That said, Americans have not the slightest inclination to impose a religious test on those seeking political office, nor are they easily duped by showy piety. Americans simply want religiously motivated views to be given an equal hearing. In that sense, it was telling that Lieberman was criticized for a speech delivered in a black church. The civil rights revolution of the last fifty years has arguably been the single greatest moral achievement of modern American democracy and is perhaps the best example of the inevitable confluence of religion and politics. That achievement would have been impossible without the black church and the appeal religious leaders made to the larger society, in explicitly religious language, for social justice and equal rights. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., did not seek an establishment of religion, but he did challenge the nation, from pulpits and political venues, to make good on the promise of equality embodied in the religion of the majority and guaranteed by the Constitution. Reasonable people can disagree with Joseph Lieberman on certain issues-we certainly do-but his religious words remind us of the irreducible moral dimension of politics.

Published in the 2000-09-22 issue: 
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