IF JOE LIEBERMAN were Christian, he could take some comfort in Jesus’ observation that “a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” As the first Jew to serve on a national ticket and as a Democrat, he must be surprised to find himself under attack - from fellow Jews and Democrats.
The vice-presidential candidate has made himself a prophet without honor by speaking too much about his faith in the household of the secular left, which has frowned upon his rhetorical trick of lacing his remarks with references to the Old Testament. Lieberman has even gone so far as to compare Bill Clinton and Al Gore to Moses.
He must be feeling a bit like Moses himself.
Like the original Hebrew lawgiver, Lieberman has been charged with the difficult task of leading a sometimes unappreciative and obstinate group - the Democrats - out of the wilderness. He roams the desert, preaching about God to followers who, if left to their own devices, might just as soon worship a golden calf.
Having spent decades erecting an impermeable wall between church and state, the left now stands in befuddled awe as Lieberman, their number-two standard-bearer, graciously leaps from one side of it to the other. They expect such lines as “we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God’s purpose” to come from the Christian Coalition, not the Democratic vice-presidential candidate.
After biting their tongues for the better part of the last month, the Democrats’ left-wing faithful could stand the proselytism no longer. Joe Eszterhas, the writer behind soft-porn movies like Showgirls and Basic Instinct, took out an ad in Variety announcing that he would give the Gore campaign “not a penny more” until Lieberman stopped his moralizing.
Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, denounced Lieberman’s “style of campaigning” as “unhealthy to our democratic process.” He added that “we are electing secular political leaders to run a government, not religious leaders to manage a house of worship.” The Anti-Defamation League’s national chairman and director sent Lieberman a curt letter complaining that “appealing along religious lines, or belief in God, is contrary to the American ideal.”
That last attack was a surprise, coming from a Jewish organization that primarily concerns itself with stamping out anti-Semitism. The answer to the pundits’ favorite question for the last month - is America “ready” to elect an observant Jew to such a high office? - appears to be in. America may be ready, but the left, clearly, is not-not even the Jewish left.
The ADL would prefer that Lieberman keep his faith to himself, or at least not say or do much publicly that stems from his religious convictions. It’s OK that he’s Jewish, just so long as his religion remains only an ethnic identifier, and not a practical philosophy that actually governs his worldview.
That’s because when Lieberman insists that “there must be a place for faith in America’s public life,” he lends cover to conservatives who have been arguing the same point for years. He brings bipartisan credibility to claims that the First Amendment shouldn’t be construed to keep politicians from acting on their faith, or to ban the mere mention of God in public places. “We know that the Constitution wisely separates church from state,” Lieberman explains, “but remember the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”
In the church of the left, this is grand heresy. As Rev. Lynn sought to remind Lieberman, the liberal creed demands that “we keep religion separate from government and politics.” But, as the Lieberman candidacy has neatly demonstrated, in a free society, that degree of separation is impossible. Laws are the political expression of moral attitudes, and for believers, morality is rooted in faith.
Lieberman has never proposed instituting a national religion, or managing the White House like a “house of worship.” He merely has promised to lead with his conscience, which is informed by his religion. Americans are “ready” for that degree of religiosity in public office because they have grown weary of the alternative - the “compartmentalization” that characterized the Clinton years, when an impermeable wall separated morality and leadership.
Whether they will trust Lieberman’s sincerity, in light of his signing up with Clinton and Gore, remains to be seen. It might just be that Lieberman has boxed himself out of political viability, alienating the left with his public faith, and alienating the center and the right with his politics.
Like Moses, Lieberman’s lot in life may be to bring his people to the promised land-without ever actually getting there himself.