The Sin of Joe Lieberman
August 29, 2000
Senator Joseph Lieberman has
already turned out to be a great asset to the Democratic ticket. His
aura of moral seriousness and his evident commitment to Orthodox
Judaism have gone far to erase the stains of the Clinton presidency
and to counteract the impression that the Democratic Party
long the party of the New Morality is anti-religious.
But Lieberman has gone too far
for some people. His unabashed appeals to God and
Gods purpose have provoked the Anti-Defamation
League to charge him with an inappropriate mixing of
religion and politics in fact with almost
appeals to religion are pretty bland. He praises faith
without specifying faith in what. This is very much in the American
tradition of being vaguely pro-religion while letting listeners fill in
the blanks. Many presidents have gone further, asking Americans to
pray (for victory in war, among other things). Not long ago
politicians could safely describe this country as a Christian
nation. No doubt the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish group,
is worried that Lieberman is opening the door to a resurgence of
overtly Christian politics.
Americans, and not just Jews,
are generally suspicious of mixing religion and politics, and
especially of politicians who parade their faith. Its natural
to suspect hypocrisy in religious gestures that are made for show;
Christ himself warned against the kind of prayer that is meant
chiefly to make an impression on observers.
But there is a rival tradition, especially strong in the
South, which sees public life as impoverished without religion. This
tradition feels that the separation of church and state
a phrase associated with the Constitution, though it
doesnt appear there has been taken to such lengths as
to cramp even private religious life. Even now there is a widespread
rebellion against court-imposed restrictions on community prayer,
as at football games. Prayer has become a form of protest against a
government that is felt to be hostile to religion.
The trouble with consigning
religion to private life is that the great religions were meant to
animate whole communities, not just solitary individuals. Besides,
public life makes more and more demands on us, leaving privacy a
shrinking residue. The state today regards everything as its business
our incomes, our habits of consumption, even our
childrens education (including sex education).
Taken rigorously, the separation
of church and state would mean that religion must be excluded from
any area of life the state chooses to move into. A totalitarian state
would leave no room at all for religion which was exactly
what happened under Communism, and is increasingly happening in
As C.S. Lewis wrote,
When the modern world says to us aloud, You may be
religious when you are alone, it adds under its breath,
and I will see to it that you are never alone. To make
Christianity a private affair while banishing all privacy is to
relegate it to the rainbows end or the Greek
Why must God and
Gods purpose be eliminated from public discussion?
Are believers supposed to pretend he doesnt exist, or
doesnt matter? To assume that is to assume that he is only a
theory or abstraction who contrary to Judaism, Christianity,
and Islam has never revealed himself to men.
Religious people are even
accused of violating the separation of church and
state when they act, argue, and vote from their convictions.
But the separation of church and state is only supposed to be a
limitation on the state, for the sake of religious freedom itself. To
appeal to it in order to inhibit the free exercise of
religion including the application of sacred truth to politics
is to get everything backwards.
If God exists he does not exist
as we exist, contingently, as a mere part (however great) of a larger
reality. He is sovereign over everything and nothing matters more
than his will. And whether we like to face it or not, our chief duty is
to do his will. The divine will is not something we can set aside as a
special department of our lives. It must guide us in
everything including many more things than Joe Lieberman
has mentioned. But God bless him for reminding us.
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