Joe Lieberman’s religiously promiscuous campaign

(RNS) — It may not be true, as an old wag said, that all careers end badly, but Joe Lieberman’s didn’t end very well.

Before his death on Wednesday (March 27), he was serving as founding chairman of the No Labels political organization, which is fixing to run someone for president this year without having so far identified a candidate, a policy agenda, a public list of funders or a persuasive rationale.

Click the Lieberman video on the No Labels website and there’s a hand placing a needle on a scratchy LP of a crooner singing a 1950s-type song praising Joe over a campaign montage of the first Jewish American to run on a major-party presidential ticket.

No Labels = Nostalgia.

No doubt, Lieberman considered Al Gore’s nod to run for the vice presidency in 2000 to be his most thrilling moment in politics, and it is what will earn him a footnote in the history books. A trip down memory lane shows the choice was greeted with a warm round of patriotic applause — at first.

“[A]n all-American grand slam,” gushed Deb Price in the Detroit News. “The most dramatic statement of inclusion since John F. Kennedy won election as the nation’s first — and so far only — Catholic president in 1960,” declared the Los Angeles Times.

The nomination was extra special because it wasn’t a case of someone being chosen as if religious belief didn’t matter. As Ellen Goodman columnized in The Boston Globe: “Forty years ago in Los Angeles, the Democrats who nominated JFK as president overlooked religion. But the Democrats nominating Joe Lieberman as vice president celebrated it.”

The candidate, whose commitment to Jewish belief and practice had intensified over the years, certainly did. In his acceptance speech, he mentioned God a dozen times, never letting a campaign stop slip without some mention of religion in general and his faith in particular. At an interfaith breakfast in Chicago, he announced, “We are not only citizens of this blessed country, we are citizens of the same awesome God.”

For a time it appeared as if Gore had selected not merely a running mate but the Nation’s Rabbi. Much was made — perhaps too much — of the fact that Lieberman was the Democrat who stood up to chastise President Bill Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky. He was “the conscience of the Senate” and, in an era of what then seemed like intense partisanship, the Republicans’ “favorite Democrat” was admired even on the religious right.

Of course, behind the Lieberman lovefest lurked the specter of antisemitism. Both Time and Newsweek seized upon the phrase “leap of faith” — implying that such a leap was necessary in order to believe that the American people would be willing to have a Jew a heartbeat away from the presidency.

There were, indeed, antisemitic remarks and online postings, as well as polling indicating that American Muslim voters would shy away from the Democratic ticket because of Lieberman’s support for Israel. But by and large, the love lasted — for three weeks. Then the trail got bumpier.

Speaking at a Black church shortly before Labor Day, Lieberman launched into what The Washington Post called “an impassioned appeal for a return of faith to public life.” Expressing the hope that his candidacy would “enable people, all people who are moved, to feel more free to talk about their faith and about their religion,” he declared, “As a people we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God’s purpose.”

He also insisted that “the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion,” proclaiming, “There must be and can be a constitutional place for faith in our public life.”

Critical reaction was immediate. The Anti-Defamation League issued a “Dear Senator Lieberman” letter objecting to his suggestion “that one cannot be a moral person without being a religious person,” calling it “an affront to many highly ethical citizens.” It urged him to “keep in mind that public profession of religious beliefs should not be an elemental part of this or any other political campaign.”

“The argument that religion is essential to moral behavior is insulting and dangerous,” snapped the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Lieberman had, said The Seattle Times, “crossed a line of tact and inclusiveness.” Wrote Sandy Grady of the Philadelphia Daily News, “[W]hen Holy Joe goes into his ‘children of God’ spiel, you wonder who the potential vice president is leaving out.”

Lieberman, the candidate of religious inclusivity, now looked to some like the candidate of religious exclusion.

If he was going to speak about religion, argued The Washington Post, he ought to say something about “the vexed questions of church-state relations: school prayer or moments of silence, aid to parochial schools, government support for faith-based charities, school vouchers.” Opined USA Today, “Having asserted a need for more religion in public life, Lieberman also needs to define the limits of government involvement in religion.”

Lieberman, for his part, begged off. “This is really less a matter of programs or legislation than it is of giving respect to the constructive role that faith can play in the lives of individuals, and in the lives of the community,” he told The New York Times.

Nevertheless, in the course of the rest of the campaign he asserted that a belief in God makes it “hard not to be an environmentalist” and that Gore’s proposal for a Medicare prescription drug benefit was a fulfillment of the biblical commandment to “honor thy father and thy mother.”

In the end, Lieberman’s promiscuous and imprecise invocations of religion did little to clarify the complex questions about religion and public life the country was facing. It was a missed opportunity.

Since the campaign of 2000 an awful lot has happened to affect religion and American public life: the attacks of Sept. 11 and the rise of Islamophobia; the transformation of a Supreme Court committed to church-state separation to one committed to religious accommodation; the emergence of Christian nationalism; and the recrudescence of antisemitism. 

The clarification Joe Lieberman might have provided looks further away than ever.

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