latimes.com: Lieberman and religion seem to be an easy mix
DETROIT (Los Angeles Times) --Vice presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman made a passionate call Sunday for Americans to bring faith more prominently into public life, arguing that the nation needs to draw values and strength from religious beliefs.
"While so much of our economic life is thriving, too much of our moral life is still stagnating," said Lieberman, speaking during morning services at the Fellowship Chapel Church, an African American congregation here. "As a people, we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purposes."
The speech, in which he quoted extensively from Talmudic rabbis and the Bible, was the most dramatic demonstration of how the Connecticut senator has placed his religion front and center in the campaign. Lieberman may be the first Jew on a major party ticket, but he has been anything but shy in expressing his Jewishness. He frequently mentions God in public--praising the Lord, thanking him, invoking his name.
He has even thrown around a little Yiddish on the campaign trail, bestowing on his running mate, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, the ultimate compliment: that the vice president has a yiddishe neshoma, or Jewish soul.
Although some Jewish leaders worried that Lieberman's high profile could expose lingering anti-Semitism--and indeed he has been savagely attacked on the Web sites of hate groups--his declarations of Jewish faith and culture appear to have been received positively by the overwhelmingly non-Jewish electorate.
"I think it shows him to be an honest, open and forthright person," said Joyce Skrobat, 42, who heard Lieberman speak Friday at a community center in Claymont, Del. "It shows that he's willing to share a very special part of himself with people in this country."
On Sunday, congregant Marie Baker, 44, said she was moved to hear a politician speak so candidly about his beliefs: "He knows who he is; he knows who God is. And he knows that we're all joined together by God."
Lieberman's openness with his beliefs even appears to have inspired some of his listeners, Jew and non-Jew alike. The words "God bless you!" are heard again and again when he reaches into a crowd to shake hands. Even Lieberman says he has been surprised by how often someone says, "I'm praying for you." On Sunday, his sermon-like address drew "Amens" and standing ovations from the congregation.
Mission of love, not intolerance
During his 30-minute speech, Lieberman noted that the country was founded on Judeo-Christian values such as equality, and that many of America's major movements--civil rights among them--have been influenced by spiritualism.
He also acknowledged that not every American subscribes to a religious belief system.
"Let us reach out to those who may neither believe nor observe, and reassure them that we share with them the core values of America," he said, "that our faith is not inconsistent with their freedom, and that our mission is not one of intolerance, but of love."
But for the most part, the senator spoke in almost rabbinical tones, calling for "a constitutional place for faith in our public life."
"We know that the Constitution wisely separates church from state," he said. "But remember, the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Not freedom from religion."
Lieberman added, "So let us break through some of the inhibitions that have existed to talk together across the flimsy line of separation of faith: to talk together, to study together, to pray together and ultimately to sing together his holy name."
Lieberman's comfort with discussing his religion--and the ease in which it has been accepted so far--speaks to the complex role faith plays in the political sphere.
Many candidates are afraid that mentioning their belief in God will offend voters, either nonbelievers or those of different faiths. President Clinton bemoaned such fears in 1993, calling for more candor when it comes to religious values.
"The fact that we have freedom of religion," he said during a White House prayer breakfast, "doesn't mean that those of us who have faith shouldn't frankly admit that we are animated by that faith, that we try to live by it--and that it does affect what we feel, what we think and what we do."
Going against conventional wisdom
Democrats in particular have shied away from speaking about their religion, leaving the topic to Republicans, especially Christian conservatives. They, in turn, drew fire from liberals, who accused them of bringing God into politics and of trying to convert others to their way of thinking.
So Lieberman went against conventional wisdom when Gore introduced him as his running mate this month in Nashville. In a speech filled with numerous references to God, he quoted from the Book of Chronicles, saying his selection inspired him "to give thanks to God and declare his name and make his acts known to the people."
Yet public reaction to Lieberman's expression of faith has been a sharp departure from the way many people have chafed at the Christian right, experts noted. Why?
"I think what makes a difference is the assessment that evangelical Protestants are much more likely to impose their religious values on others outside their community," said James L. Guth, an expert on the Christian right and politics at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. "Whereas with Sen. Lieberman, his religion is his own. There's a real sense that it shapes him, but he doesn't try to shape others."
This viewpoint is not unique to Lieberman. Jewish tradition, for the most part, does not endorse proselytizing. Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of UCLA's Hillel, observed that Lieberman has a celebratory, rather than judgmental, view of faith.
Because of this, Seidler-Feller said, the senator is "the American religious person that everybody dreams about."
"The general assumption is that either you're a religious person or a secular person, and there's antagonism between the open world of popular culture and the spiritual, inner world," he said. "Lieberman represents someone who hasn't had to compromise the intensity of his Jewishness. I think people are breathing a sigh of relief and celebrating the fact that you don't have to give up one world for the other."
Lieberman agrees, saying that people of all religions seem to resonate with his openness.
"I think maybe people feel a bond," he said in a recent interview. "Faith really plays a very important role in the lives of a great majority of Americans. It anchors their lives, as it does mine."
And he said Sunday that Judaism's notion of tikkun olam--repairing the world--has shaped his dedication to public service.
"I was taught to believe that through faith, we are endowed with the gift to do good, and the responsibility to do no less," he told congregants at Detroit's Fellowship Chapel Church.
Tables tuned on the usual critics
Many experts said that the vice presidential nominee has been able to speak out so easily because the critics of conservative religious language usually are those on the left of the political spectrum.
"This is sort of a turning of the tables," said Geoffrey Layman, a political science professor who studies religion and politics at Vanderbilt University.
And, Layman added, the acceptance could go deeper than that. "People are a little concerned about the moral direction the country is going in," he said. "This willingness to accept this kind of religious talk in the political sphere may be a reaction to the current administration."
In addition, Jewish leaders said that there has been a renewed interest in Judaism among many Christians.
"I think the Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic church have done a lot to change people's interest in Judaism," said Robert Wexler, president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. "They're hearing from churches that it's a way to enhance their own faith."
Still, the question remains: Could people, religious and secular alike, worry that Lieberman's faith will guide his decisions as vice president?
The answer, from many quarters, is: So what if it does?
"All policies embody particular values, and religion is a source of values," said Corwin E. Smidt, director of the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics in Grand Rapids, Mich. "Is it better to know a motivating basis or not? If it's one's religion, at least one is being honest about why one is taking that position."
On Sunday, Lieberman said he hopes his candor "will enable people, all people who are moved, to feel more free to talk about their faith and about their religion. And I hope," he added, "that it will reinforce a belief that I feel as strongly about as anything else: that there must be a place for faith in America's public life."