Lieberman's Mix of Faith, Policy Tests Tolerance By Hanna Rosin and Ceci Connolly Washington Post Staff Writers
In the beginning, Republican nominee George W. Bush spoke frankly about how Jesus Christ had changed his life, about the transforming power of faith, about the country's thirst for a religious revival. But after the flap over his speech at Bob Jones University last spring, and his naming Jesus Christ as his favorite political philosopher, he was chastened, and toned it down.
Now Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, in his first two days of solo campaigning, seems to be testing this ground again. His speeches are drenched with biblical references and bold prophecies. Americans are "children of an awesome God," the Democratic vice presidential nominee told an interfaith prayer breakfast in Chicago yesterday. "This is the most religious country in the world and sometimes we try to . . . hide it."
Those who watched Bush stumble are wondering how Lieberman will fare: Can a Democrat and a Jew pull off what a conservative Christian couldn't? If he gets away with it, is it a double standard?
Each time Lieberman pushes the church and state boundary, both Christians and civil libertarians are on alert. At a church group Sunday, the Connecticut senator called explicitly for "a constitutional place for faith in our public life."
Yesterday he even found a way to slip it into the most policy-laden of contexts: "Isn't Medicare coverage of prescription drugs really about the values of the Fifth Commandment--honor your father and mother?" he asked the 200 religious leaders at the prayer breakfast.
The gentle treatment has not gone unnoticed.
"To be honest, there's a bit of a double standard operating here," said John Green, a professor at the University of Akron who studies religion in politics. "When conservative Christians do this they're seen as a more threatening force."
"I was struck by the fact that yesterday he delivered an explicitly political speech in a church," said Richard Lessner, vice president of American Renewal, a conservative lobby group. "I would suggest that if Governor Bush or another Republican candidate had done the same thing, you'd hear the militant separation of church and state crowd screaming bloody murder. And so far we've not heard a peep."
What's especially galling to religious conservatives is that Lieberman is defining himself as the champion of religion in the public square, without actually committing to any policies that might promote it.
He has not supported student-led prayer in schools or posting the Ten Commandments in public places. And while he famously criticized President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he did not vote to remove him from office.
"It's fine to rend your garments and go through deep moral thinking," said Lessner. "But when it comes to actual policies, he's exceedingly reticent."
For the Gore campaign, Lieberman's avoidance of specifics seems to be part of an explicit strategy: Talk about values and faith as the backbone of America, but only in an ecumenical way. And avoid the details.
In his campaign appearances, Lieberman has not spoken much about Judaism; instead, he makes references to religion in general as a "source of unity and strength in America." And when he does make Jewish references, he universalizes them. Referring to the Hebrew song "Hine Ma Tov," Lieberman said he was reminded of "those lines 'how good and wonderful it was for brothers and sisters to come together in harmony.' "
"People like the values-based message," one campaign adviser said. "We can't cross the line, but I don't think we have."
So far, polls suggest the message could be working. A recent Newsweek survey showed 66 percent of the public was "not at all concerned" that Lieberman's religion might interfere with his ability to perform as vice president. Gore pollster Stanley Greenberg has argued that voters are receptive to leaders discussing faith and religion, so long as they do it with certain restraints.
For a campaign trying to distance itself from the Clinton scandals and reclaim a moral center, Lieberman may be the best spokesman. His patter of jokes makes his moralizing easier to swallow. Plus, being Jewish and Orthodox makes him a novelty, and consequently less prone to the standard line of attack against religious conservatives.
"Jews in general are not proselytizers," said one Lieberman adviser, explaining why audiences might be more receptive to his brand of faith. "He's not lecturing on morality or behavior from up on the pulpit; he's trying to talk about values."
The difference in style between Lieberman and Bush yesterday was instructive. Lieberman spoke about religion in soaring terms, describing America at the prayer breakfast not as the inspiration of "a bunch of lawyers," but as an "endowment from our creator."
Bush, too, spoke to a religious group, B'nai B'rith International, the world's largest Jewish organization. "Our nation is chosen by God," he told the 200 or so delegates.
But for the most part, he wrapped his references to God in policy prescriptions, praising religious service organizations as part of a list that included tax relief, better schools, welfare reform and support for Israel.
Lieberman may be enjoying an amnesty now, but it's only his first two days alone on the campaign trail. The first complaints are already emerging, from some surprising sources, and soon he may have to learn the same lesson as Bush.
Yesterday, the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement calling on him to refrain from "overt expressions" of religious values and beliefs.
"Candidates should feel comfortable explaining their religious convictions to voters," said Howard P. Berkowitz, ADL national chairman, and Abraham H. Foxman, the national director. "At the same time, however, we believe there is a point at which an emphasis on religion in a political campaign becomes inappropriate and even unsettling in a religiously diverse society such as ours."