Senator Joseph Lieberman’s reaffirmation of religious faith and its importance in public life is a fine and wonderful thing; he should be roundly applauded for it. When he quoted John Adams and George Washington on the relation between religion and morality, he was truer to “the American ideal” than the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which invoked that term to criticize him. When he said, “The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion,” he corrected in a single sentence almost everything wrong with judicial interpretation of the First Amendment during the past half-century. Win or lose in November, Lieberman has performed a useful public service whose benefits will outlive the political season.
It is no denigration of the man or his principles, however, to suggest that there is method to his approach. As a political tactic, Lieberman’s invocation of overtly religious themes is a brilliant stroke. It taps into the widespread (if inchoate) public malaise about declining moral standards; it implies that the Republicans don’t have a monopoly on the “God” issue—and, by extension, remedies for moral decline; it helps Gore to distance himself from Clinton’s reprehensible behavior; and it conveys the impression that Gore and Lieberman are “new” Democrats who are not beholden to the secularist enthusiasms of the left. And it accomplishes these goals without actually saying much about them, in the same manner that Lieberman has garnered political favor for being an observant Jew without, for example, having to square his support for abortion with the contrary teaching of traditional Jewish sages.
Whether the electorate will buy into this remains to be seen, but its potency as a political gesture is suggested by the first wave of reactions to Lieberman’s religious invocations. He was criticized by the likes of the ADL and the Washington Post and defended by Pat Robertson, Bill Bennett, and other Republican loyalists of religious stripe. Democratic strategists couldn’t buy that kind of result if they tripled their take from every Buddhist temple in the land. They’re probably praying for an attack by Larry Flynt, but even without it, the strategy will, as they say, play in Peoria. The Republicans, while praising Lieberman’s sentiments, ought to probe their opponents to see just what the Democrats’ rediscovery of religion means in terms of public policy.
They might, for example, ask Lieberman whether he meant what he said when, as attorney general of Connecticut, he filed a brief in the Supreme Court supporting Alabama’s effort to restore nonsectarian prayer in classrooms. (Not only that, in his campaign against Lowell Weicker, he specifically attacked Weicker for his opposition to school prayer.) The prayer in question read, “Almighty God, You alone are our God. We acknowledge You as the Creator and Supreme Judge of the world. May Your Justice, Your Truth, and Your Place abound this day in the hearts of our countrymen, in the counsels of our government, in the sanctity of our homes, and in the classrooms of our schools in the name of our Lord, Amen.” The High Court declared that to be a violation of the Establishment Clause. Do Gore and Lieberman agree with then-Attorney General Lieberman or with the Supreme Court?
A second case: Would Gore and Lieberman support legislative proposals in New Jersey and Arizona to require schoolchildren to recite relevant sections of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, specifically that our nation was founded on certain truths, among them that our rights to life, liberty, and property are of divine origin? What about requiring children to memorize sections of state constitutions that specifically note the dependence of political institutions on divine providence? Would they like to comment on the idea, now being advanced in certain states, of posting the Ten Commandments in schools?
A third case: This past April, in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals declared that Ohio’s state motto, “With God All Things Are Possible,” was an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. Do Gore and Lieberman agree that the people of Ohio should be required to take down their state motto? On appeal, will Gore’s solicitor general support the ACLU or the state of Ohio?
The possibilities here are endless and require but little imagination on the part of Governor Bush and his running mate. All hail to Lieberman’s principles, but the country needs to know whether his rhetoric has any practical application. They’ll be listening in Peoria.