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?"