Senator Lieberman Gets It Right

August 31, 2000

A few days ago Senator Joseph Lieberman came to Chicago to meet with a group of local religious leaders. A day earlier he was in Detroit speaking at an inner city church called Fellowship Chapel. During his remarks in both places he made headline news with his emphasis on the important role religious faith plays in the American political process. This is a theme we have heard in recent years from conservative Christian leaders. It is refreshing to hear an Orthodox Jew say the following: “The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion” and “There must be and can be a constitutional place for faith in our public life.” He even went so far as to suggest that America is moving to a “new spiritual awakening.” Not surprisingly, his comments have met with criticism from various quarters. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called on Lieberman to stop making overt expressions of faith in a political context because he risks alienating people. Such appeals run “contrary to the American ideal.” However, a study of early American history makes it clear that most of the founders expected that churches would play a leading role in our society. It is only in recent decades, as the culture has turned aggressively secular, that statements such as Senator Lieberman made would be considered unusual or newsworthy. He was only voicing what generations of Americans always believed-that a nation that proclaims “In God we trust” should welcome the contributions of people of faith.

I should also point out that Senator Lieberman is running for vice president on the Democratic ticket, which explains why he compared the two terms of Bill Clinton and Al Gore to Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea. But this is the season of political rhetoric and he is trying to win an election. The same could be said of Dick Cheney whose faith is surely as deep as Senator Lieberman’s, if not so well known.

In this case the senator is right and his critics are wrong-at least on the main point. The First Amendment was never meant to exclude religious people from public life nor to suggest that we should check our convictions at the door when we go into the polling booth or when we run for office. The vaunted “American ideal” is based on the concept of inalienable rights that come to us from the hand of our Creator. Strictly speaking, this is a theological insight, not merely a political statement. We have rights guaranteed to us by God himself. Thus it behooves us to make sure that the laws of this land correspond to the revealed truth that comes from God. Said another way, without God we are left with nothing but personal experience and the brute will of the man who has the biggest gun and the most ammunition.

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