LOYAL OPPOSITION: Please, Senator, More God
Joe Lieberman is right, and the Anti-Defamation League is wrong. There should be more public discussion of politicians' personal faith.
The ADL got into a funk after Lieberman, during campaign stops in Detroit, declared, "There must be a place for faith in America's public life. Morality cannot be maintained without religion." The next day, the ADL asked Lieberman to stop "hawking" his faith, but Lieberman refused to concede and observed, "This is the most religious country in the world."
Forget the ADL's admonishment; inquiring minds should want Lieberman to further expound and explain his remarks. His assertion regarding morality and religion demonstrated tremendous intolerance toward people of no faith. Does he hold that only God-believers can walk the righteous path of morality? And is the United States truly the most religious country? More so than, say, Iran?
What does it mean to Lieberman that the "most religious country" has the most child poverty, most murders, most prisoners, most guns, and most state-sponsored executions among the industrial democracies? Would he care to see America become more religious, and, if so, in what direction and toward what end? Since he is seeking the second-highest office in the land, it is not unreasonable to pose such questions, for the matter does seem to be on his mind.
A would-be leader's views on faith and religion should not automatically be rendered immaterial or beyond the bounds of political debate. Lieberman and the other national-ticket candidates are vying for the right to rule the most powerful nation in the world and to command a nuclear arsenal that can obliterate all life on the planet. The public has the right to know whether their religious views might affect policy decisions.
Ronald Reagan was intrigued with Armageddon and the prophesies of Revelations. As interpreted by some evangelicals, Revelations predicts that a final, destroy-all battle must occur between the forces of light and the forces of darkness before the second coming of Christ. In the 1970s and 1980s, some Armageddonists believed this final confrontation would be a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. (You can guess who represented the forces of light.)
Suppose Reagan shared such a view. If relations between Washington and Moscow came to a brink and nuclear conflict was near, might Reagan have thought he would be fulfilling a biblical prophecy by pushing the button? During a 1984 debate with Walter Mondale, Reagan was asked if he believed the Bible predicted an imminent nuclear war between the two superpowers; he dodged the question.
George W. Bush and Al Gore each have some explaining to do about their own religious views. Bush once told his mother that only Christians gain entry into heaven. In a pseudo-retraction, he later said that it was not up to George W. Bush to say who passes through the highest gates. But -- notice -- he did not acknowledge he had been wrong. If he still considers heaven reserved for only certain Americans, might that cause him to look at other Americans -- or at heathens abroad -- with lesser regard? Such an attitude could affect how he approached policy matters.
A former theology student, Gore has told people that when he confronts a tough call he asks himself, "what would Jesus do?" (WWJD, as the faithful say.) This statement deserves testing. Last year, South Africa, which is home to millions of people infected with the HIV virus, passed laws that rendered it easier for the nation to obtain highly expensive, anti-AIDS medicines at lower prices -- a move that pissed off drug manufacturers. If the Big J were around these days, whose side do you think he would have taken? Gore initially allied himself with the pharmaceutical firms and pressured the South African government to change course. He only shifted once Act Up activists started dogging him at campaign events. If Gore claims to make decisions using the WWJD method, he should be grilled about his views on Christ. Here's a question for the debates: Mr. Vice President, would Jesus skirt campaign finance law and raise soft money from corporations looking to gain influence within the legislative and executive branches?
The notion of separation between church and state does not, of course, rule out the mixing of religion and politicking. If religion is a crucial part of a leader's life, the public should know that fact, and citizens can ponder how that may influence decision-making.
In 1991, during the tempestuous Clarence Thomas hearings, I paid several visits to his church in Fairfax, Virginia. It was a charismatic house of worship, where people spoke in tongues. A previous rector there had been a key endorser of Pat Robertson's 1988 presidential campaign. The church was part of a religious movement that adhered to the notion of "spiritual warfare." In this view, what takes place in the secular world is a reflection of the never-ending struggle between God and Satan, and true Christians engage daily in actual, not metaphorical, hand-to-hand combat with the Prince of Hell. They are taught to regard the Bible literally and to follow the instructions of God and the church above all else.
Assume Thomas accepted these teachings. Did that mean he believed Satan controlled the politicians, movie producers, civil liberties lawyers and others who act in ungodly fashion, that legal conflicts reflect the ongoing tussle between God and Lucifer, and that Thomas' obedience to his religious faith transcended his duty to the Constitution? Might his adherence to such beliefs affect the manner in which he reached decisions that would affect millions? After all, if he believed the ACLU was fronting for the Evil One (wittingly or not), could he impartially hear its arguments? I wrote an article raising these questions and was blasted elsewhere in the press for daring to politicize a man's faith. A Democratic aide to the Senate Judiciary Committee agreed this was fair game, but she could find no Senator willing to approach such a sensitive subject during Thomas' confirmation hearings.
In the case of Lieberman, it's easier to deal with the matter, because he has repreatedly referred to his faith. He also has interjected faith into the public arena before the current campaign. Several years ago, he became the honorary chair of the Center for Jewish and Christian Values. According to its website, this outfit "works to improve the moral climate in our country" by supporting "programs that bring faith and shared religious values back into public life." The Center was concocted by another group called the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which maintains, "We as a nation, have paid a dear price for having religious expression effectively banned in our schools." That price, the group insists, includes an increase in out-of-wedlock births, juvenile crime, teen drug and alcohol abuse, and "a breakdown in basic morality." Urging "a return to the basic Godly principles on which this nation was built," the Fellowship has called for outlawing gay marriages and late-term abortions.
What's Liberman doing in the same holy bed with this right-wing religious gang? Perhaps he's being ecumenical or showing how broad-minded he can be. But the advisory board of the center he chairs -- which is loaded with conservatives, such as Jack Kemp, William Kristol, Gary Bauer, and William Bennett -- includes persons whose commitment to morality deserves challenging: Elliott Abrams, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Ralph Reed.
Abrams, a top State Department official during the Reagan years, pled guilty to withholding information from Congress during the Iran-contra affair. (An unrepentant Abrams was pardoned by President Bush, a month before Bush left office.) Abrams also lied to Congress about the infamous El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, when a US-trained, elite battalion of the military slaughtered 800 peasants. Abrams, who disparaged press reports about the incident, claimed the United States possessed no intelligence on what he depicted as an alleged massacre. But that was untrue. In power, Abrams committed other pernicious acts. He canned US ambassadors who were bold enough to report human rights violations in countries deemed friendly to Washington. And he sided with the Reaganites who wanted to protect Panamanian drug-thug Manuel Noriega because Noreiga was helping the Reagan-backed contras in Nicaragua.
Jeane Kirkpatrick, when she was UN ambassador for Reagan, gladly hobnobbed with the anti-Semitic generals of the Argentine junta and Augusto Pinochet, the tyrant of Chile. Each regime had decimated thousands, yet Kirkpatrick -- placing anti-communism ahead of the thou-shall-not-kill commandment -- declared her support for their anti-leftist efforts.
Ralph Reed became famous establishing Pat Robertson as a political force. Where's the morality in assisting a man who has equated Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Methodists with "the spirit of the anti-Christ," who has written that President Bush was literally a tool of Satan, and who has said that Hinduism is "Devil worship"?
Lieberman wants to be seen as a man of faith and morality. But in pursuit of that he has kept some bad company.
"I think faith has a constructive role that it can play in American life," Lieberman recently said. That may be, though he's rather fuzzy on the how. But an examination of a candidate's religious views -- and the relationship, or lack thereof, between those views and his or her actions -- can be constructive. You often can tell a lot about a politician by what he says -- and does -- when the subject is God.