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RELIGION

The Lieberman Test for Multiethnic America

September 24, 2000|Gregory Rodriguez | Gregory Rodriguez, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a fellow at the New America Foundation

The leading presidential candidates are telling us that religion has a legitimate role to play in U.S. politics and public life. Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush have both endorsed the idea of forging stronger bonds between government and religious faith. With even greater fervor, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Gore's running mate, has called on Americans to dedicate themselves and their nation "to God and God's purpose." Yet, despite all the talk of the Almighty in the 2000 campaign, its implications for public policy are far from clear. Moreover, rules of a faith, such as the restriction on intermarriage in Lieberman's religion, raise sensitive questions for America's evolving multiethnic society.

Religion had long been considered a largely private matter. It was one of the two topics--politics is the other--not to be broached in polite company. But the wall separating the public and private has steadily crumbled. In 1960, when John F. Kennedy's Catholicism threatened to become an issue in his presidential campaign, he defused it by separating his private beliefs from his public duties. By contrast, Lieberman has actively injected the issue of his faith into the campaign. He has thrust the personal into the public realm.

Yet, declaring one's belief in God is only the most elementary form of religious faith. Polls indicate that more than 90% of Americans profess such a belief. But religion is more than the universalist platitudes the political candidates repeat. It is a system of communally celebrated rituals, rites and rules. Sectarian by definition, it demands that believers adhere to certain tenets and behavioral proscriptions that may run contrary to the values of a secular and pluralistic society. As such, religion is a lot more difficult to integrate into the act of governing than the candidates seem willing to concede.

Just how difficult it can be was illustrated by Lieberman himself. In an apparent retreat from a widespread Jewish concern, even among nonreligious Jews, about intermarriage and the threat it poses to Jewish continuity, he recently told talk-radio host Don Imus that he believes his religion does not restrict Jews from marrying non-Jews. His declaration, which his campaign affirmed, may come as news to much of organized Jewry and to his family, as well. Earlier this month, it was reported that Lieberman made clear to his two grown children that they should date only Jews, who, in America, are as much an ethnic as a religious group. The Connecticut senator also serves on the board of directors of the Orthodox Union, an organization that prides itself on its "proven record of leadership in fighting assimilation and intermarriage." The organization's head, Mandell I. Ganchrow, has referred to intermarried Jews, who make up fully half of American Jewry, as "ignorant Jews."

Lieberman's faith, Modern Orthodox Judaism, is itself a hybrid of tradition and modernity. Unlike the ultra-Orthodox, who choose to live largely segregated lives in America, Modern or Centrist Orthodox Jews seek to wed a literal belief in Jewish Scripture with the demands and diversity of contemporary life. His Judaism encourages Lieberman to hone his admirable skill of blending personal faith and politics. It may also have imbued him with his evident appreciation for U.S. pluralism and the ideology of inclusion that undergirds it.

To be sure, the restriction on intermarriage that Lieberman has abandoned is in no way improper. He and any other American has every right to adhere to his personal beliefs regarding intermarriage. But the rub comes when an adherent to what can be considered an ancient tribal principle seeks to represent all Americans in an executive office. Some would contend that officeholders' religious views are irrelevant as long as they don't strive to impose them on all Americans. But national political figures are role models for citizens in a way that other elected officials are not.

No one has spoken to this point more eloquently than Lieberman himself. In his 1998 floor speech condemning President Bill Clinton's conduct in the Lewinsky affair, he argued persuasively that "the president is a role model. And because of his prominence in the moral authority that emanates from his office, sets standards of behavior for the people he serves." This symbolic responsibility, Lieberman's campaign seems to be saying, also extends to the vice presidency.

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