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CAMPAIGN 2000

Lieberman and Religion Seem to Be an Easy Mix

Campaign: Support for candidate's openness appears to be nondenominational.

August 28, 2000|MATEA GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — Vice presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman made a passionate call Sunday for Americans to bring faith more prominently into public life, arguing that the nation needs to draw values and strength from religious beliefs.

"While so much of our economic life is thriving, too much of our moral life is still stagnating," said Lieberman, speaking during morning services at the Fellowship Chapel Church, an African American congregation here. "As a people, we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purposes."

The speech, in which he quoted extensively from Talmudic rabbis and the Bible, was the most dramatic demonstration of how the Connecticut senator has placed his religion front and center in the campaign. Lieberman may be the first Jew on a major party ticket, but he has been anything but shy in expressing his Jewishness. He frequently mentions God in public--praising the Lord, thanking him, invoking his name.

He has even thrown around a little Yiddish on the campaign trail, bestowing on his running mate, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, the ultimate compliment: that the vice president has a yiddishe neshoma, or Jewish soul.

Although some Jewish leaders worried that Lieberman's high profile could expose lingering anti-Semitism--and indeed he has been savagely attacked on the Web sites of hate groups--his declarations of Jewish faith and culture appear to have been received positively by the overwhelmingly non-Jewish electorate.

"I think it shows him to be an honest, open and forthright person," said Joyce Skrobat, 42, who heard Lieberman speak Friday at a community center in Claymont, Del. "It shows that he's willing to share a very special part of himself with people in this country."

On Sunday, congregant Marie Baker, 44, said she was moved to hear a politician speak so candidly about his beliefs: "He knows who he is; he knows who God is. And he knows that we're all joined together by God."

Lieberman's openness with his beliefs even appears to have inspired some of his listeners, Jew and non-Jew alike. The words "God bless you!" are heard again and again when he reaches into a crowd to shake hands. Even Lieberman says he has been surprised by how often someone says, "I'm praying for you." On Sunday, his sermon-like address drew "Amens" and standing ovations from the congregation.

Mission of Love, Not Intolerance

During his 30-minute speech, Lieberman noted that the country was founded on Judeo-Christian values such as equality, and that many of America's major movements--civil rights among them--have been influenced by spiritualism.

He also acknowledged that not every American subscribes to a religious belief system.

"Let us reach out to those who may neither believe nor observe, and reassure them that we share with them the core values of America," he said, "that our faith is not inconsistent with their freedom, and that our mission is not one of intolerance, but of love."

But for the most part, the senator spoke in almost rabbinical tones, calling for "a constitutional place for faith in our public life."

"We know that the Constitution wisely separates church from state," he said. "But remember, the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Not freedom from religion."

Lieberman added, "So let us break through some of the inhibitions that have existed to talk together across the flimsy line of separation of faith: to talk together, to study together, to pray together and ultimately to sing together his holy name."

Lieberman's comfort with discussing his religion--and the ease in which it has been accepted so far--speaks to the complex role faith plays in the political sphere.

Many candidates are afraid that mentioning their belief in God will offend voters, either nonbelievers or those of different faiths. President Clinton bemoaned such fears in 1993, calling for more candor when it comes to religious values.

"The fact that we have freedom of religion," he said during a White House prayer breakfast, "doesn't mean that those of us who have faith shouldn't frankly admit that we are animated by that faith, that we try to live by it--and that it does affect what we feel, what we think and what we do."

Going Against Conventional Wisdom

Democrats in particular have shied away from speaking about their religion, leaving the topic to Republicans, especially Christian conservatives. They, in turn, drew fire from liberals, who accused them of bringing God into politics and of trying to convert others to their way of thinking.

So Lieberman went against conventional wisdom when Gore introduced him as his running mate this month in Nashville. In a speech filled with numerous references to God, he quoted from the Book of Chronicles, saying his selection inspired him "to give thanks to God and declare his name and make his acts known to the people."

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