|RELIGION AND POLITICS|
Septemeber 1, 2000
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: As a people we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purposes.
KWAME HOLMAN: From the first days after being named the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, Joe Lieberman has spoken about faith, morality, and the role of religion in public life. (Cheers) Vice President Gore's selection of Lieberman, an observant and modern orthodox Jew, was viewed by many as historic and gutsy, but also risky. This week, Lieberman came under fire for remarks about religion. It began with this homily at a black church in Detroit last weekend.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: While so much of our economic life is thriving, too much of our moral life is still stagnated. I miss the days when faith was discussed in public and not the most intimate details of our lives.
KWAME HOLMAN: The next day, Lieberman spoke again to a gathering of religious leaders in Chicago.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: This is a gathering across religious lines because it makes real for me what I have believed with a profound faith throughout my life: that religion is a source of unity and strength in America.
KWAME HOLMAN: Those statements drew a caution from one of the nation's most prominent Jewish groups, the Anti-Defamation League.
ABRAHAM FOXMAN, Director, Anti-Defamation League: Keep religion where it belongs, which is in the synagogue and church and home and their consciences, not on the campaign trail.
KWAME HOLMAN: In a letter to Lieberman, league director Foxman wrote: "To even suggest one cannot be a moral person without being a religious person is an affront to many highly ethical citizens" The League also wrote that "using language such as this risks alienating the American people. The First Amendment requires that government neither support one religion over another, nor the religious over the non-religious." Shortly thereafter, Lieberman said he did not intend to cast doubt on the morality of the non-religious.
Throughout the presidential campaign, candidates on both sides explicitly have discussed the importance of religion in their lives and beliefs. Vice President Gore, who calls himself a born-again Christian, has talked about the significance of Jesus in his life. And Republican nominee George W. Bush has stressed his faith throughout the campaign. He recently proclaimed June 10 to be Jesus Day in Texas, a move criticized by some. Bush also talked about the importance of Jesus during a debate with his opponents in the Republican primary.
QUESTIONER: What political philosopher or thinker do you most identify with and why?
GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: Christ, because He changed my heart.
QUESTIONER: I think that the viewer would like to know more on how He has changed your heart.
GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, if they don't know it is going to be hard to explain. When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the savior, it changes your heart, it changes your life, and that's what happened to me. (Cheers and applause)
KWAME HOLMAN: Some evangelical leaders say Lieberman is enjoying a double standard-- that Governor Bush is criticized for talking about Jesus, but Lieberman is given more leeway because he's Jewish. Still, Lieberman says he won't back down from discussing religion and faith. He says talking about those subjects is part of the American way.
JIM LEHRER: Terrence Smith takes it from there.
TERENCE SMITH: Now, four different perspectives, J.J. Goldberg is editor of the "Forward," a Jewish weekly newspaper published in New York City; Samuel Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University, he is the author of "Jew Versus Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry;" Barry Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State; and Richard Lessner is Vice President of American Renewal, the lobbying arm of the Family Research Council. Welcome to you all. Barry Lynn, I wonder your reaction to the ADL statement and position and to the question of whether Senator Lieberman has crossed a line here.
BARRY LYNN: The letter accurately described what the problem is. What has happened in this campaign is a move way beyond what we call civil religion, the kind of thing that leads to playing Kate Smith's record of "God Bless America" at the end of all political conventions. This is something that's become a proof text from holy scripture - that is, we look for a place within our holy scriptures for specific support for programs. For example, Senator Lieberman said the Fifth Commandment: Honor your father and mother -- was the basis for the democrat's version of pharmaceutical aid for the elderly. I think that's inappropriate in the campaign season. I also think we found in the last week of campaigning, Senator Lieberman assuming that it is the goal of politicians, part of their job, to tell us to reaffirm our faith. It assumes that everyone has it. Millions of Americans of course manage to live moral lives without religious faith. And it suggests that politicians should be the ones who tell us to be better religiously. I think that's up to the Imans, the ministers, the priests and rabbis of the country, frankly not Senators and not future potential Vice Presidents.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. J.J. Goldberg, do you think this encroaches is, as Barry is suggesting, a line of separation between church and state?
J. J. GOLDBERG: I think there's a very fine line. The notion that the government can inspire people to behave better and to be a more moral nation is a very compelling one. I think the Democrats want to get into that box and not cede morality to the Republicans. Picking Joe Lieberman was a gamble that it was possible to encourage more moral behavior without crossing the line of state-church separation. He crossed that line Sunday in Detroit he crossed that line; saying as a nation we need to reaffirm our faith in God is the wrong way. As 270 million individuals may have a faith in God, the nation of the United States does not. The Constitution doesn't guarantee freedom of from religion. That's plain wrong. The Constitution guarantees the freedom. So if he can go back to affirming his own personal faith and holding himself up as an example that he hopes can be emulated, that's fine. As a bully pulpit, that's fine. Once he says politics and government need to be involved in finding the way to do that, rather than himself as an individual, he is involved in coercion.
TERENCE SMITH: Sam Freedman, what is your view of this? Has a line been crossed?
SAMUEL FREEDMAN: I was not troubled by the speech. In fact, I thought it was very appropriate that he gave the speech in a black church because what he was partly doing was laying claim to a glorious moment in American history, the civil rights movement when the language of religion, when the organizing role of the church was used to achieve civil rights for African Americans. And by really invoking that similar appeal to God's purpose there, and really speaking out of his own experience, after all, not putting that forward as a platform plank, he was reminding us that religion as a force in public life isn't as J.J. was just suggesting, the province of one point of view or one political party, and that it's part of a dialogue that can be put to the purposes of achieving social justice.
TERENCE SMITH: Richard Lessner, it's not entirely new, is it?
RICHARD LESSNER: You know, the other night I was over at the Lincoln Memorial and inscribed on the walls of that memorial are the stirring words of Lincoln's second inaugural speech, a speech that is suffused with biblical imagery, theological illusions. If there is no role for faith in our public life, we should go over to that monument and chisel those words off the walls of that stirring edifice. When this country was at war, and our boys were landing on the beaches of Normandy, FDR went on the radio and led the nation in a prayer. The comments that Senator Lieberman has made stand squarely in the majority historic tradition of America. There is a reference made to the Constitution, you know when the constitutional convention reached an impasse over the issue of slavery, you know what the delegates did? At Benjamin Franklin's suggestion, they closed the doors and they prayed. And that broke the impasse. There is a sense in which our country, as William O. Douglas said, the Justice of the Supreme Court, that we are a religious people whose institution presuppose the existence of a Supreme Being. We invoke God all of the time. It is common to assert our liberties derive from God, as we said in our declaration. We are endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights. So there isn't anything that Senator Lieberman said or did which is outside the mainstream tradition of America.
TERENCE SMITH: Barry Lynn, you're shaking your head.
BARRY LYNN: Well, of course, the Declaration of Independence mentions God but the Constitution does not. And that is what we need to remind politicians of on a regular basis. Ultimately the source of American law and public policy is not anyone's holy scripture but in fact the Constitution. I think that's where people get very nervous with this mixing of religious metaphors and seeming to have religious solutions for what are really secular problems. Also, Richard's being a little disingenuous about history. When Franklin Roosevelt asked for the nation to pray at this one crucial moment, he was not campaigning day-by-day, finding a new religious quote that would be used on the front page of the "Washington Post" and the "New York Times." I think there is a big difference. This starts to look like pandering more than a profession of faith. And that's no good, frankly for religion or for politics.
TERENCE SMITH: J.J. Goldberg, that's a good question. What is the appropriate role for religion in politics, or for religious illusion in campaigning?
J.J. GOLDBERG: The appropriate role for religion is to help us to gauge the individuals that we're electing to office. Once they take office, they're committed to running a secular institution whose primary job is coercion. That's what government is about. So when they say I'm a person of faith, I believe in morality, I'd like to make this nation better, I understand a little bit about who they are. When they say this nation is dedicated to God, I get a little scared. You know, going back to Jefferson's time, this nation has been divided on whether the role of government is to make the nation more moral, as the Federalists argue or whether the role of government is to stay out of this, as Jefferson argued. And that's why the American -Jewish community as a religious minority has been tied to the Democrats since the 1800 election. It's appropriate for politicians to say I believe I'd like others to behave in more moral ways, but to say here's how our government ought to be guided, they've got to be very careful. For somebody from the party of Jefferson to start saying the government needs to make these decisions will scare people away from the Democratic Party.
TERENCE SMITH: Sam Freedman, how much do you want to hear from politicians, from candidates for public office about their religious views?
SAMUEL FREEDMAN: I think I'm willing to hear whatever they have to say because it's part of what reveals them as human beings and as candidates for office. And then like any other citizen, I can take that into account when I cast my vote. I certainly wouldn't want to muzzle it. And there is also an important distinction to be made that when Joe Lieberman is talking in general terms about his religious belief or even as Al Gore did or George W. Bush did, in some of the sound bites that you had on earlier, the video bites you had earlier, they're not dictating a particular governmental program that's going to be imposed in the name of religious belief. I'm old enough to have grown up in the year when there was still school prayer that was mandatory. So I remember it was like to be a Jewish kid in a classroom where every day you must say a Christian prayer. What is happening here is different with the possible exception of Governor Bush's declaration of Jesus Day in Texas because that was an action of the state that was valorizing one particular religion at the expense of others.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, is there a double standard or different standard applied there?
SAMUEL FREEDMAN: I don't think so. If there is a double standard, why would a Jewish group have been the first one really to criticize a Jewish candidate on this?
TERENCE SMITH: Which was....
SAMUEL FREEDMAN: Joe Lieberman, that is
BARRY LYNN: I don't think there is a double standard. I think that Governor Bush has had a longer history of both an interest, an extraordinary interest in the political support of the so-called religious right. He is the one who has invoked Jesus much more and God more frequently, for years during this search for his position in the White House. As a consequence, I think it was reasonable for people to take a breath, give someone like Senator Lieberman, largely unknown to the American people when he was chosen, a chance to explain himself. I personally would not have explained myself in such religious detail the moment selected by Mr. Gore to run. But on the other hand, that was an acceptable time to say, enough now; we know everything. I think people frequently talk about knowing the heart of people. We know the hearts of these men. I think the American public knows all four of them to be religious people. But now we're starting to see the oracles and the ventricles and the aortas. And that's more than we need to see.
TERENCE SMITH: Richard Lessner, is there a different standard, or a different application of the standard?
RICHARD LESSNER: Clearly, there is. There is a double standard. The conservative politicians who speak about faith and who give voice to their personal faith and speak about God in public are routinely vilified by the left for dragging religion into politics. It did take sometime for Mr. Lynn's organization to respond and for the ADL to respond, but I think what's important in all of this to note is what Joe Lieberman didn't say. Joe Lieberman didn't say we should compel people to believe; he didn't say we should drive people to churches and synagogues. He didn't say we should have a religious test for office. He didn't say we should tax people to support religious institutions; he said none of those things. He merely spoke about his faith and about the faith that his country has historically had in God. And to the notion that somehow just hearing this unduly burdens the conscience of some Americans I think is not a mainstream deal.
TERENCE SMITH: Gentlemen, let me ask J.J. Goldberg one question, which is, how widely from what you know, how widely was the objection outlined by the ADL held in the larger Jewish community?
J.J. GOLDBERG: I think it represented a very broad segment of the community. I think there's a widespread fear that the government is opening its door when it talks too much about religion, to acting on religion so the distinction Richard drew disappears. I think when the experiment -
TERENCE SMITH: A fear of what, though? A fear of what will happen?
J.J. GOLDBERG: A fear of coercion, a fear of prayer in public school, a fear of outlawing abortion because one particular religion is opposed to; a fear of legislating religion or the religious views of one segment of the population. Now, you know, the same debate over double standard happened in Israel. One week earlier Israeli had elected an orthodox president and there were hells of protest. When Lieberman was nominated a week later, people were celebrating and people on the lef and the right asked why is this double standard - why is it okay in American and not in Israel? The answer was because Lieberman wouldn't propose to close off streets on Saturday or outlaw eating of pork or any of the coercive religious legislations that the religious right has proposed in Israel as the religious right has proposed in America. It's not how many words they use but whether they propose coercive legislation. I believe that in Detroit Lieberman stepped over that line and opened a constitutional door in his language to coercive, religious legislation. He didn't advocate it. He opened the door to it.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. I'm afraid we have to leave it there. Thank you all very much.