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CAMPAIGN 2000

Lieberman Calls for 'Spiritual Awakening'

October 25, 2000|MATEA GOLD and DANA CALVO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Decrying the erosion of the country's moral standards, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman made his most emphatic call to date Tuesday for Americans to embrace faith-driven values and power a "spiritual awakening" in society.

"Our nation is only as strong as our values, and right now, despite our material abundance, there is a persistent sense, which I share, of unease about our moral future," the Democratic vice presidential candidate told a crowd of 600 at the University of Notre Dame.

Lieberman made clear in his 45-minute speech that he would not shy away from the controversial theme of religion in public life that he has laid out in his campaign even if his "friends and foes alike discouraged" him.

"I must say that my resolve has been strengthened," said the Connecticut senator, the first Jew nominated to a major party's national ticket. "The experiences that I've had in this campaign convinced me that this is a conversation that we as a nation need to have, for I believe that we are still struggling to regain our moral balance in part because we are still struggling to regain our spiritual balance."

While promising that he and Gore would do whatever they could--within the boundaries of the Constitution--to support a spiritual renewal in the country, Lieberman also said he understands the limits of government in pursuing this agenda.

"In our democracy, where our first principle is freedom, government cannot and must not try to control all of our behavior," he said. "Government ultimately can only go so far to solve our moral problems."

By emphasizing his religious philosophy just two weeks before the election, Lieberman appears intent on linking the Democratic ticket's agenda to a system of moral values and establishing a break from the questions that haunt President Clinton after his affair with a White House intern.

But the challenges of staking claim to religious values were also apparent Tuesday, as Lieberman's address was interrupted by an abortion rights opponent in the audience who shouted repeatedly: "What about abortion?"

"You've made your point. I respect it," Lieberman said, raising his voice to be heard over the student's yells. "I ask you only to respect my right to continue to speak, as I came here to do."

Lieberman acknowledged the perspective of those who don't adhere to a religious belief system.

"If history and personal experience teach us anything, it is that there are many nonreligious people, nonobservant people, who are good people," he said, "and plenty of religious people who most would say are not."

Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, the country's oldest organization for nonbelievers, said Lieberman has offered a scary future.

"Sen. Lieberman said that religion has been a unifying force throughout history, and American Atheists says religion has been the single most divisive idea throughout all of history," she said. "He said nonbelievers have nothing to fear from believers, but atheists do fear the Gore-Lieberman plan for the mixing of religion and government in America."

Barry W. Lynn, a minister in the United Church of Christ and the executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, also said Lieberman is out of line.

"I'm not happy about this new return to so much religiosity," Lynn said. "You have to wonder if this turn to religion is based on God or focus groups. I think it's based on focus groups."

Although critics such as Johnson and Lynn balked at Lieberman's language, some religious leaders said his words go to the heart of voter anxiety about the moral state of the country.

"I do think it's incredibly clear that the future of American politics is a conversation about values," said Rev. Jim Wallis, author of "The Soul of Politics" and a lecturer about the role of faith in politics. "The perception is that we have lost our way. So when someone talks about values, rooted in their religion or not, I think it's very attractive to people."

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