Fall 2000, Vol. 3, No. 3

Contents Page,
Vol. 3, No. 3


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Taking Stock

Cult Fighting in Massachusetts

The Mexican Election: Bringing the Church Back In

Rome, Relativism, and Reaction

Waco Redux: Trial and Error

Tibet I: Lama on the Lam

Tibet II: Monastic Spinmeister

The Never Ending Story

Preacher Joe

by Mark Silk

In America, where any kid should be able to grow up to be president, we love a good story about an outsider making it into an inner circle. So it’s hardly a surprise that, in a presidential campaign where the headliners were the son of a president and the son of a senator, the choice of the first Jew ever to be put on a major party ticket would be greeted with a warm round of patriotic applause.

"Al Gore’s decision to choose Joe Lieberman was an all-American grand slam," gushed Deb Price in the Detroit News. It was, declared the Los Angeles Times, "the most dramatic statement of inclusion since John F. Kennedy won election as the nation’s first—and so far only—Catholic president in 1960."

Lieberman’s own comment was "only in America"—as if (as some journalists were picky enough to point out) Jews had not already headed governments in France and Austria and—if you count the ambiguously Jewish Benjamin Disraeli—England. But who knew from other countries?

The nomination of Lieberman counted as an extra special thing because this wasn’t a case of someone being chosen despite religious liabilities. As Ellen Goodman columnized in the Boston Globe, "Forty years ago in Los Angeles, the Democrats who nominated JFK as president overlooked religion. But the Democrats nominating Joe Lieberman as vice president celebrated it."

Certainly Lieberman celebrated it. In his acceptance speech, he mentioned God a dozen times, and (so far as can be told from the news reports) never let a campaign stop slip without some mention of religion in general and his faith in particular. At an interfaith breakfast in Chicago he announced, "We are not only citizens of this blessed country, we are citizens of the same awesome God."

Columnist Charles Krauthammer rhapsodized in Time on the importance of Lieberman’s being not just Jewish but an observant Orthodox Jew. Indeed, the press was full of sidebars explaining what an Orthodox Jew is, and even parsing the differences between the movement known as Modern Orthodoxy (with which Lieberman is associated) and more conservative versions of the faith that have of late been in the ascendant. The various restrictions imposed by Jewish law on the behavior of adherents were laid out, and it was explained how Lieberman had (with rabbinic help) found ways of conducting the public’s business as senator while keeping the Sabbath.

For a time it appeared as if Gore had selected not merely a running mate but the Nation’s Rabbi. Much was made—perhaps too much—of the fact that Lieberman was The Democrat who stood up to chastise President Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky. He was both "the conscience of the Senate" and, as Newsweek pronounced on its cover, the "Un-Bill" who would enable Gore to place some apparently necessary moral distance between himself and the President. To boot, Lieberman was, in an era of intense partisanship, the Republicans’ "favorite Democrat," beloved of even neo-conservatives and the Religious Right.

Of course, behind the Lieberman love fest lurked the specter of anti-Semitism. Both Time and Newsweek lit upon the phrase "leap of faith"—suggesting that a leap of faith was necessary to believe that the American people would be willing to have a Jew a heartbeat away from the presidency. A few days before Gore made his choice known, former Philadelphia mayor and current Democratic National Committee Chair Ed Rendell dared raise the possibility that Lieberman’s religion might not be an unmixed blessing for the national ticket. "If Joe Lieberman were Episcopalian, he would be a slam dunk," Rendell told reporters at a Democratic fund-raiser on Long Island. "There’s no question Joe would be a dynamite choice," he told the New York Post, "but anytime you break ground, you have to think about that."

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the remarks "rankled" the Gore campaign, but Rendell, himself Jewish, was hardly out of sync with fears that accompanied the subsequent elation in the Jewish community at large. "When Jews are too visible, it’s bad news," Shlomo Singer, a 33-year-old resident of a heavily Hasidic neighborhood of Brooklyn, told the New York Times. "The Jews have to remember that they’re in a diaspora and that they have no business running politics."

Evidence of anti-Semitism was quickly ascertained in the form of scurrilous postings on Web Sites, and there were suggestions—supported by subsequent polling—that American Muslim voters might be shying away from the Democratic ticket on the grounds of Lieberman’s supposed favoritism toward Israel. But it was only in the black community that public figures could be found who expressed outright hostility to Lieberman because of his religion—in the persons of Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam (no surprise there), Amsterdam News emeritus publisher Wilbert Tatum (who said Lieberman had been chosen "for the money"), and the head of the Dallas NAACP, Lee Alcorn.

Speaking on a Dallas radio show August 7, Alcorn declared, "If we get a Jew person, then what I’m wondering is, I mean, what is this movement for, you know? Does it have anything to do with the failed peace talks?" He continued, "So I think we need to be very suspicious of any kind of partnerships between the Jews at that kind of level because we know that their interest primarily has to do with money and these kind of things." Within a couple of days, Alcorn had resigned his position, after being suspended by NAACP president Kweisi Mfume. "I find your comments in this matter to be repulsive," Mfume wrote in a letter to Alcorn. "They are, in my opinion, anti-Semitic and anti-NAACP. Your comments do not reflect the views or values of the NAACP, our board staff or membership."

But the most important African American voice on the Lieberman selection belonged to Jesse Jackson, who did not drop a beat. "Let the nation rejoice," he said. "The tent is getting bigger and better." Given Lieberman’s significantly more conservative profile within the Democratic Party, Jackson might have been expected to withhold a full-throated endorsement. His relations with the Jewish community had, moreover, been troubled ever since his 1984 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, when he was reported to have called New York City "Hymie-town." But Jackson harked back to the days when many Jews-including the young Joe Lieberman—had gone South to fight for the civil rights of blacks. "We’ve been in the trenches together," he said.

All in all, Lieberman enjoyed three fat weeks of coverage. Then the trail got bumpier.

On Sunday, August 27, he began his first solo campaign tour in the important battleground state of Michigan. There he met with members of Detroit’s significant Arab-American community as well as its sizable Jewish community, and went to a black church called Fellowship Chapel. "He got involved in our struggle," said the pastor. "I haven’t heard of any Bushes involved in our struggle….. But as a student from Yale University, [he] helped shake the tree."

Then Lieberman launched into what the Washington Post called "an impassioned appeal for a return of faith to public life." In the course of the appeal he quoted John Adams and George Washington on the religious underpinnings of society. He expressed the hope that his candidacy would "enable people, all people who are moved, to feel more free to talk about their faith and about their religion," adding that "there must be a place for faith in America’s public life." And he asserted, "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 did insert "a message of inclusion" (as the Post put it) for non-believers, with whom, he said, "we share… the core values of America that our faith is not inconsistent with their freedom and that our mission is not one of intolerance but one of love." But he insisted that the "Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion," and proclaimed, "There must be and can be a constitutional place for faith in our public life."

Richard Perez-Pena, the New York Times’ boy on the Lieberman bus, supplied the most pointed reportage. "His words, if spoken by a conservative Christian, would probably be received with alarm by many factions in Mr. Lieberman’s own party—including many Jews—who are wary of the political activism of the religious right," Perez-Pena wrote. "His themes—and even his phrases—were remarkably similar to those commonly voiced by conservative Republicans."

The assertion that the Constitution guarantees "freedom of" rather than "freedom from" religion has indeed been conservative boilerplate for a couple of decades—although it is hard to read constitutional prohibitions on religious tests for office and religious establishments as other than guarantees of freedom from religion. That the remarks were better calculated to appeal to evangelical Protestants than Jews cannot be doubted. For example, according to the 1998 Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard University National Survey of Americans on Values, 73 percent of Jews believe churches should stay out of politics, as opposed to only 16 percent of traditional white evangelicals and 28 percent of black Protestants.

Otherwise, Perez-Pena may have understated how far out Lieberman’s rhetoric was. Conservative Republican politicians do not these days make a habit of calling on the entire nation to renew "our faith," nor is it common parlance on the Religious Right to ask that faith have "a constitutional place" in public life, whatever Lieberman meant by that. And in a campaign widely (and correctly) remarked for the profusion of professions of faith from presidential aspirants, it was odd—to say nothing of grandiose—for Lieberman to suppose that his own newborn candidacy might enable people to speak more freely of their religious commitments and beliefs.

In any event, reaction to Lieberman’s reported remarks was immediate. From the unexpected quarter of the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish self-defense agency, came a "Dear Senator Lieberman" letter, which declared, "To even suggest that one cannot be a moral person without being a religious person is an affront to many highly ethical citizens…. [N]one of our citizens, including atheistic Americans, should be made to feel outside of the electoral or political process." The letter concluded by urging the senator to "keep in mind that public profession of religious beliefs should not be an elemental part of this or any other political campaign."

In response, Lieberman respectfully disagreed with the ADL’s criticism while offering some tactical clarification: "Religion in my opinion can be, and in my opinion usually is, a source of good behavior," he told the New York Times. "But two things: I know religious people who I consider not to be moral, and I also know people who are not religious who I consider to be extremely moral. So, you know, I’m talking here about probabilities." In an interview with the AP, he said, "I thought there was a little bit of an overreaction. I wasn’t hawking my religious views, I was really talking more generically."

ADL v. Lieberman provided fodder for several days worth of story, and opened the way for a volley of editorial assaults. Claiming that the perhaps 40 million Americans with no religious affiliation "are capable of being moral citizens, good neighbors and law-abiding voters who live under the graceful canopy of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights," the Minneapolis Star-Tribune snapped, "The argument that religion is essential to moral behavior is insulting and dangerous."

Lieberman had, said the Seattle Times, "crossed a line of tact and inclusiveness." Wrote Sandy Grady of the Philadelphia Daily News, "[W]hen Holy Joe goes into his ‘children of God’ spiel, you wonder who the potential vice president is leaving out."

In a word, Lieberman, the candidate of religious inclusion, now looked to some like the candidate of religious exclusivity.

The Washington Post argued that if Lieberman were going to speak about religion, he ought to say something about "the vexed questions of church-state relations: school prayer or moments of silence, aid to parochial schools, government support for faith-based charities, school vouchers." Or as USA Today put it, "Having asserted a need for more religion in public life, Lieberman also needs to define the limits of government involvement in religion."

But Lieberman, who had backed away from his provisional support for vouchers in accepting the vice presidential nomination, begged off. "This is really less a matter of programs or legislation than it is of giving respect to the constructive role that faith can play in the lives of individuals, and in the lives of the community," he told the New York Times. In the course of the rest of the campaign, he did, however, assert that a belief in God makes it "hard not to be an environmentalist" and that Vice President Gore’s proposal for a Medicare prescription drug benefit was a fulfillment of the Biblical commandment to "honor thy father and thy mother."

To that, Lars-Erik Nelson of the New York Daily News retorted that religious conservatives had taken just the opposite views—holding that environmentalism violates the differential value the Bible puts on human versus other life, and that social welfare programs relieve citizens of the obligation to honor their parents. Lieberman, Nelson wrote, "persistently confuses his religion with his politics." His sacralizing of environmentalism was "especially nasty," in light of the Democrats’ heaping of blame on George W. Bush for Texas’s poor record on controlling pollution.

In fact, such thundering did not appear to have much effect on public attitudes. A Newsweek poll, taken shortly after the ADL brouhaha, found that 51 percent of Americans thought religion should play a bigger role in public life and only 28 percent believed Lieberman talked too much about his faith. Wise guys suggested that, politically, the ADL had done Lieberman a favor by attacking him: Who now could accuse him of being an agent of organized Jewry?

Nor was editorial support lacking. "Lieberman’s language tells us who he is," said the Chicago Sun-Times. "What legitimate argument is there against a presidential candidate doing that?" And the New York Daily News declared, "In urging a greater role for religion and faith in American public life, Joe Lieberman is offering a moral compass to a nation dazed by the wide collapse of moral values, from Hollywood to the White House."

It was often unclear, however, where Lieberman’s needle was pointing. On the stump he was an enthusiast for faith—his own, Al Gore’s, and everyone else’s. But his promiscuous and imprecise invocations of religion did little to clarify the increasingly complex and important questions about religion and public life that are before the country today. A presidential campaign may not be the best place for a careful discussion of such questions, but that’s when the American people are paying the most attention. For as smart and religiously committed a public servant as Joe Lieberman, it was a missed opportunity.