The Common Good
November-December 2000

Should Joe Lieberman Keep his Faith to Himself?

by Jim Wallis | November-December 2000

The real question is not whether religious values should help shape politics, but how.

Some people just want Joe Lieberman to keep his religion to himself—at least in the public arena. The Democratic candidate for vice president has been speaking directly out of his own Jewish faith all along the campaign trail, and affirming the crucial role of religion in shaping values for American politics. But Lieberman's comments have been very upsetting to those who think that faith and politics just don't mix—or shouldn't. What the senator from Connecticut has done is to spark a fascinating and important discussion about the proper roles of religion, values, and public policy that will be with us far beyond this election.

It is, of course, not a new discussion, but one that goes back to the nation's founding. Those founders saw the wisdom of separating church and state, making sure there would be no state-sponsored religion in the new nation, nor state interference in the devout diversity of the citizen's religious practice. But as many in the current debate have pointed out, religion has always been a part of American politics, with frequent reference to God and faith on the part of many presidents and a myriad of social reformers. From Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln to Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan, from Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson to Pat Robertson, the language of faith has been repeatedly invoked for a variety of social and political purposes.

At its best, faith in God has been used to hold the nation to divine accountability, as in Lincoln's expressions of collective penitence and the need for national forgiveness, and when King called his country to its best religious and political ideals in his Letter From the Birmingham Jail. But at its worst, biblical prooftexting to support ideological causes has made both religion and politics look bad. "Are we on God's side?" has always been a better question than "Is God on ours?"

Religion has and will always be a part of American politics. The real question is not whether religious values should help shape our national political discussion, but how.

Religious Fundamentalists
I think it's a mistake to regard all the conservative Christians in the Religious Right as people who want to impose their religious values on fellow citizens. In my experience, most have been motivated more by defensive feelings than offensive intentions. Many Christians (of all different political stripes) are concerned about the coarsening of American life, the unraveling of traditional values, and threats to religious precepts like the sacredness of human life. What our children are being subjected to on television, in school yards, and now over the Internet has been a greater motivating force for political involvement than abolishing the Department of Education or any number of other issues on the agenda of the political right wing.

I've been more concerned about what is missing from the agenda of the Religious Right—such as concern for the poor and racial justice—and the appeals of the movement's leaders to middle-class self-interest over biblical imperatives.

But I also believe that some of those leaders, like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, are theocrats—those who would impose their versions of morality on the nation if they ever had the chance. Their mistake, as pointed out by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson in their very insightful book Blinded By Might, was the attempt to take political power in and through the Republican party to impose a "moral" agenda from the top down.

History teaches us that the most effective social movements are also spiritual ones, which change people's thinking and attitudes by an appeal to moral and religions values. Those movements change the cultural and political climate, which then make policy changes more possible, palatable and, yes, democratic. The best example of doing it right, of course, is the American civil rights movement, which was led by ministers who appealed directly to biblical faith.

But the political strength of the Religious Right is now only a shadow of what it once was, and it is another mistake to be always fighting against them. The electoral strength of the Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition was exaggerated by both themselves and the media, but now their ability to "deliver" decisive blocs of votes is greatly diminished. The Republican Party is now careful at party conventions to hide its religious fundamentalists, as mainstream voters have soured on both their message and style. The leaders of the Religious Right have been reduced to playing the role of talking heads on news shows whose producers are too uninformed or too lazy to find spokespersons who really represent the political diversity of American religion.

There was indeed a time in the 1980s when the perception abounded that "Christian" involvement in politics meant Christian Right. But that hasn't been true for some time now. The U.S. Catholic Conference has provided real social policy leadership in the last decade and become a clear alternative to the dominance of groups like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. The Catholic bishops are opposed to abortion, as well as to notions of welfare reform that neglect poor working families, to capital punishment, and to increased military spending.

Call to Renewal has been successful in pulling the churches together on the issue of poverty, thus offering another alternative to the Religious Right's silence on that issue. Influential evangelical organizations like World Vision, World Relief, and the National Association of Evangelicals have shown a deepening social conscience over issues of poverty and race, often putting them at odds with the evangelical right. New leadership at the National Council of Churches promises greater ecumenical collaboration on social issues with both evangelicals and Catholics. And faith-inspired movements like Jubilee 2000 have demonstrated a real impact on governmental policy and crossed old dividing lines across the religious community.

Joe Lieberman's strong advocacy for religion in the public square further establishes a place for moderate and even progressive faith perspectives. More and more Christians are openly advocating the kind of social justice agenda that has always characterized the readers of Sojourners. Thus the Religious Right is now only one of many voices on issues of political ethics, as it should be.

Secular Fundamentalists
But today there are new fundamentalists in the land. These are the "secular fundamentalists," many of whom attacked Lieberman for his open religious affirmations. From the Anti-Defamation League to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, from the ACLU to some of the Left's religion-fearing ideologues, a cry of alarm has gone up in response to a Jewish vice-presidential candidate who has the audacity to be religious in public. The Anti-Defamation League even had the amazing lapse of historical memory to suggest that religious language in politics was contrary to the "American ideal." The truth is just the opposite. Many of the most progressive social movements in American history—anti-slavery, women's suffrage, the fight for child labor laws, the civil rights movement—had overt religious roots and motivations.

Why do so many liberals seem supportive of religious language when it is invoked by black civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson, but recoil when such language is employed by white political leaders? It is certainly a double standard to say that religion can be used to support voting rights but not to oppose abortion, for example. But is there a subtle kind of racism going on here, where religion is okay for liberals as long as it comes from black or poor people? Are black people supposed to be culturally religious (love those black choirs), while white believers are intellectually suspect?

Secular fundamentalists make a fundamental mistake. They believe that the separation of church and state ought to mean the separation of faith from politics. While it is true that some conservative religionists might want to blur the boundaries between church and state, most advocates of religious values in the public square, like Lieberman, do not. Most of us don't support state- or school-sanctioned prayer in public schools, nor officially backed prayers at high school football games in Texas.

Yet open talk of how a candidate's faith shapes his or her political values should be viewed as a positive thing—it's as relevant and appropriate as many other facts about a politician's background, convictions, and experience for public office. The more talk about values the better in political campaigns and, as Joe Lieberman has pointed out, religion is a primary source of values for many Americans. Clearly, minority religions and nonreligious people must always be respected and protected in our nation. But the core commitments of religious liberty need not be compromised by an open discussion of faith and public life. Indeed, the kind of talk about religion and politics Lieberman has sparked in this election campaign represents, according to columnist E.J. Dionne, "not a threat to religious liberty but its triumph."

The secular fundamentalists tell us that religion should be restricted to one's church or family. No talk of faith, they seem to be saying, ought to be allowed to seep into the public arena for fear of violating the First Amendment or alienating the nonreligious. Perhaps we should also make sure all our church and living room windows are shut tight so that no words of faith are overheard in the wider society. Lieberman's statement that "the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion not freedom from religion" prompted one of his most virulent critics to admit that she really did want a society free from religion. Fortunately, the Constitution protects the free speech of believing and unbelieving citizens.

The secular fundamentalists want to hide faith "under a bushel," but the gospel specifically instructs us not to do that. The purpose of biblical faith is not simply to comfort the believers but to transform the world. And, yes, that must always be done in ways that both respect religious liberty and enhance democracy. As Catholic teaching says so well, religious faith should serve the common good. We believe, with practitioners like Martin Luther King Jr., that religious faith should help bend the world toward justice.

So What's a Progressive Christian Voter to Do?
With theocrats on one side and secular fundamentalists on the other, how should progressive Christians express their vision of faith and politics? And, most particularly, how are we to vote?

First, we should ask what the religious profession of candidates actually means for their policy making. If religious affirmation is not tied to real political values and directions, what good is the expression of such public piety? When George Bush says that Jesus is his favorite philosopher, it is fair to ask what that means for his political philosophy. Do the poor get prioritized on his agenda as they did with Jesus? Same with Al Gore's profession of often asking himself "What would Jesus do?"

Bush admirably asserts that there are still too many standing in need, despite our highly touted prosperity. Gore surprised many by declaring he wasn't satisfied with record prosperity as long as so many working families were still poor. Which one's strategy is more likely to include the bottom 20 percent, which includes 14 million children currently shut out of our national well-being? Bush should be asked if child poverty will get more attention in his administration than oil and gas interests; Gore must be challenged to implement his new populist rhetoric when it inevitably collides with the corporations that finance both parties now. Whose plans will be more likely to extend health care and education to those now without them? And which candidate sees human and worker rights to be as important as global trade?

How does the religious principle of the sacredness of human life challenge both candidates on, for example, abortion, capital punishment, military spending, missile defense, or gun control? Religious people may disagree on the answers to those questions (i.e. Lieberman supports both capital punishment and legal abortion while the Catholic bishops do not), but shouldn't the highest rates of abortion and death row executions in the Western world be a concern to those who profess moral values? And how does allegiance to the Prince of Peace or the God of the Hebrew prophets square with a national security based on nuclear weapons?

Speaking of moral concerns, whose policies will better strengthen family life and values, combat the spread of violence in the popular culture and on our streets, advance racial justice and reconciliation, and protect God's creation. Moral character and leadership is important. The attempted separation of personal and public behavior by the current occupant of the White House doesn't square well with biblical religion, or make most of us very happy about the message our kids get. What kind of role model will each candidate be?

Is there really no real difference between the Republican and Democratic candidates, as third party advocates suggest? Does voting for Ralph Nader send a message, or just risk making things worse in the short term in the hopes of eventually making them better? How does one distinguish between symbolic choices and responsible ones? Is voting for candidates who are far from perfect a "lesser of evils" compromise or an ethical decision to seek incremental change?

The answers to the above questions are far from easy. But sorting out the meaning of faith in the world seldom is. One thing is clear: True faith cannot be kept inside the narrow boundaries of the "sacred," as some would suggest, but is intended to be "salt and light" in the midst of what is often called the secular world. Indeed, to change the world is a vocation of faith. Elections are not the most important part of that, but they are indeed one significant piece of faithful obedience in a political democracy. So pray—and then vote.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. A portion of this article appeared on Beliefnet.

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