Vol. 3, No. 3
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
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 its 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 Gores 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 nations firstand so far onlyCatholic president in
Liebermans 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 andif you count the ambiguously Jewish Benjamin
DisraeliEngland. But who knew from other countries?
The nomination of Lieberman counted as an extra special thing because this wasnt
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
Liebermans 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
publics business as senator while keeping the Sabbath.
For a time it appeared as if Gore had selected not merely a running mate but the
Nations Rabbi. Much was madeperhaps too muchof 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 Liebermans 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.
"Theres 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,
its 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 theyre 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 suggestionssupported by subsequent pollingthat
American Muslim voters might be shying away from the Democratic ticket on the grounds of
Liebermans 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 religionin 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 Im 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 Liebermans 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 Liebermanhad
gone South to fight for the civil rights of blacks. "Weve 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 Detroits 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 havent 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 Americas 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 Gods 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. Liebermans own
partyincluding many Jewswho are wary of the political activism of the
religious right," Perez-Pena wrote. "His themesand even his
phraseswere remarkably similar to those commonly voiced by conservative
The assertion that the Constitution guarantees "freedom of" rather than
"freedom from" religion has indeed been conservative boilerplate for a couple of
decadesalthough 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 Liebermans 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 oddto say
nothing of grandiosefor 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 Liebermans 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
. [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 ADLs 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,
Im talking here about probabilities." In an interview with the AP, he said,
"I thought there was a little bit of an overreaction. I wasnt 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 Gores 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 viewsholding 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 Texass poor record on
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
Nor was editorial support lacking. "Liebermans 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 Liebermans needle was pointing. On the stump
he was an enthusiast for faithhis own, Al Gores, and everyone elses. 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 thats 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.