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CAMPAIGN 2000

Lieberman Mix of Faith, Politics Sets Off Clash

August 30, 2000|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

With the pointedness that characterizes a dispute over religion or politics--and in this case, it is both--religious leaders around the nation clashed Tuesday over the Anti-Defamation League's call for Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman to tone down the expressions of faith that have dominated his recent campaign speeches.

It was a dust-up that produced ironic alliances: The ADL found itself supported Tuesday by atheists, and opposed by some rabbis. Conservative Christians, in some cases, backed both Lieberman and the ADL, yet used the occasion to argue that their favored candidates have been held to a double standard. Not the least of the oddities was the genesis of the argument itself, which pitted the nation's oldest battler against anti-Semitism against the first Jew named to a major party presidential ticket.

The conflict stemmed from a letter written Monday by the ADL's two top officials, in which they argued that Lieberman's regular infusions of biblical language and allusions to a heavenly creator were "inappropriate and even unsettling."

"To even suggest that one cannot be a moral person without being a religious person is an affront to many highly ethical citizens," stated the letter, written to Lieberman by Abraham H. Foxman, the group's national director, and Howard P. Berkowitz, its national chairman.

"The United States is made up of many different types of people from different backgrounds and different faiths, including individuals who do not believe in any god, and none of our citizens, including atheistic Americans, should be made to feel outside of the electoral or political process."

Lieberman said Tuesday that he will continue to talk about his faith.

"I respect them, but I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing, because I believe it's the American way," Lieberman told Los Angeles television station KNBC, which corralled him as he greeted members of the Communications Workers of America at the Anaheim Convention Center.

But he ignored shouted questions from other reporters and gave nearly religion-free comments at both the Orange County event and at a second stop in San Diego.

While Lieberman was playing down the matter, others were taking up sides. Two high-ranking Southern California rabbis--Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Weisenthal Center, and Lawrence Goldmark, past president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California--said the ADL leaders overreacted to Lieberman's effusive speeches. Hier attributed the letter to a Jewish community "still in shellshock" over Lieberman's selection to the Democratic ticket.

"Lieberman has not said anything that has caused people to become embarrassed or angry at him," Goldmark said. "He's not asking people to convert to Judaism."

Goldmark delivered the invocation at the CWA meeting where Lieberman spoke. "Today, no one could accuse Lieberman of wrapping himself in the Torah or being any kind of super Jew," Goldmark said. "He was a candidate."

If he hewed to the secular Tuesday, Lieberman had delivered two intensely religious speeches in previous days--both, perhaps tellingly, delivered in religious settings.

Detroit Church Speech Led to ADL Letter

The ADL letter was largely prompted by his Sunday speech to the Fellowship Chapel Church in Detroit. There, he called on Americans to "renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God," and he also cited George Washington's admonition to never suppose that "morality can be maintained without religion."

The ADL's Foxman said that the organization had been concerned about Lieberman's effusive, faith-laced speeches in the first days after he was selected. They attributed those remarks, he said, to the "rush and the excitement" of his selection. But after reading accounts of Sunday's speech, Foxman said he felt compelled to issue the reprimand.

The organization had sent similar letters to other candidates, including presidential nominees George W. Bush and Al Gore, when they spoke expansively about their faith earlier in the campaign.

"Nobody's immune from making a mistake," Foxman said of Lieberman. "We think it was wrong when Bush did it, it was wrong when Gore did it and now we think he's wrong."

To a great extent, the matter rested in the ear of the beholder. Hier, for example, said that Lieberman had not crossed over a line of inappropriateness--and he contrasted that with the past behavior of some Christian candidates.

"What has people uptight [is] when Christians begin talking about their faith and do it in a way that seems overly preachy and an attempt to convert," he said, "That's a time . . . when my red light goes off."

Evangelical Christian leaders were riled by the attempt to draw distinctions between a Jew talking about his religion and Christians talking about theirs. They argued that Lieberman was the beneficiary of a double standard.

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