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Lieberman Talks the Talk; Bush Lives It

October 29, 2000|RICHARD W. GARNETT | Richard W. Garnett is an assistant professor at Notre Dame Law School. This is excerpted from a longer article that appeared in National Review online

In an effort to attract "swing state" Catholic voters, many of whom are deeply troubled by his pro-abortion positions, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman spoke last week on faith and values at the University of Notre Dame. The address was excellent, and the themes it sounded were inspiring. All Americans who are concerned about the coarsening of our culture and who believe we should restore religious faith and values to the public square could find much to cheer in Lieberman's remarks.

At the same time, one could not help wondering whether Lieberman realizes that his campaign is funded by the same Hollywood moguls whose influence and greed he purports to condemn. Does he understand that the same people who are, he says, "polluting" popular culture with "filth" are those whom he wines and dines at well-heeled political affairs? Has he forgotten that traditional religious faith and morals are largely ignored and often mocked by Hollywood and during prime time? The senator would refuse to accept a campaign contribution from a purveyor of corrosively racist hate speech. Why hasn't he also returned the proceeds of the violent, degrading and anti-religious films, programs and albums he condemns?

The highlight of Lieberman's Notre Dame remarks was his observation that the 1st Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. He reminded us that the separation of church and state never was intended to require the complete secularization of public life. After all, our public values often reflect our religious traditions, and they cannot be adequately understood or protected apart from those traditions. Citing Catholic thinkers like Father Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak, Lieberman drew his audience's attention to the role that religious faith plays in strengthening the fabric of our community and in building up those mediating institutions and voluntary associations that are crucial to a thriving civil society. Gov. George W. Bush has sounded the same themes consistently throughout his campaign.

But does Lieberman understand that religious faith did not retreat from the public square; rather, it was driven out by laws, bureaucrats and judges? And, notwithstanding Lieberman's uplifting statements, there is no reason to think that his party's leaders or his running mate have any interest in doing what is necessary to welcome faith back into public life.

Actually, many on the political left and in Lieberman's party contend that secular "common values" should be imposed, via federal and state "anti-discrimination" laws, on private and religious associations and even on churches. They support using the public schools to impose ideological conformity on children, even when those messages go against the religious faith of the children and their parents. This kind of statism, this "liberal" version of intolerance, is irreconcilable with any real appreciation for diversity and religious pluralism. For example, does Lieberman agree with Vice President Al Gore that the Boy Scouts should be required to hold positions on sexual morality with which they disagree?

Consider also the question of school choice. Many think it is simply wrong to keep poor children trapped in failing schools and to require religious parents to pay twice to give their kids an education that is consistent with their values. Before joining the Gore ticket, Lieberman was courageous enough to buck the teachers unions and admit the "undeniable reality" that our public school system is in "ruins." Even better, he welcomed religious schools to the crucial public task of educating our children. But today, Lieberman's party and his running mate unyieldingly oppose choice. This opposition is fueled by the self-interest of the teachers unions and by the still-lingering suspicion toward Catholic schools that has distorted our education debate for 150 years.

And, finally, there is abortion. Lieberman came to Notre Dame to ask for the Catholic vote, but he is running on the most enthusiastically pro-abortion ticket in history. Lieberman disagrees with--but says that he respects--the Catholic Church's pro-life stance. But he ignores the fact that his party's positions and the legal decisions his running mate supports stand in the way of any dialogue, prevent any compromise and sometimes even silence dissenting pro-life voices. In one egregious example, the Clinton-Gore administration tried to prevent Catholic military chaplains from preaching against the president's veto of the partial-birth abortion ban. Does Lieberman condemn this kind of anti-religious censorship? If not, can we take seriously his call for "faith and values" in the public square?

Lieberman is widely and rightly praised as a good, thoughtful and faithful public servant. The revival of the public square will require legal changes and judges with a proper understanding of the 1st Amendment. But if Lieberman really wants to bring about the kind of society he called for at Notre Dame, his best bet is probably to vote for Bush.

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