Politics and Religion Still an Uneasy Mix

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Joe Lieberman: Criticized for promoting religion

So much for working in mysterious ways. So much, for that matter, for the AARP being the most powerful lobby in Washington. Forty years after JFK had to promise his Catholicism would have no effect on his presidency, God, whether Christian or Jewish, is everybody's running mate on the campaign trail this year. And the backlash — from folks who actually believe that old saw about the separation of church and state — may finally be starting to rain down.

The Anti-Defamation League had already dropped a line to George W. Bush and Al Gore in the spring, after Bush had called Jesus his favorite philosopher during a debate and Gore called himself a born-again Christian on "60 Minutes."

"We drew a line during the primaries for Bush and Gore," said ADL national director Abe Foxman, who penned another warning to Joe Lieberman Monday after the Democrat's weekend speech at a Detroit church. "And we now think Senator Lieberman crossed it."

This is what they're complaining about: "As a people, we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purpose," said Lieberman during services. "There must be a place for faith in America's public life."

The ADL's concerns are partly practical. As excited as they are to see the first Jew on a national ticket, they worry that Lieberman will arouse religious fears — and hatred of Jews — and thus be a sort of slash-and-burn pioneer, leaving a poisoned atmosphere for those who follow him. They're also partly principle. With the church-and-state crowd often dismissed these days along with cultural liberals as anti-morality and anti-family, the ADL (with its practiced eye for demagogy) may be trying to fill the void.

"We do not think that religion belongs in the political campaign and the political arena," Foxman told the New York Times. "There's nothing wrong with somebody professing their faith and going to church or synagoue, but this is almost hawking it." So what about this, from Bush in Washington Monday at a B'nai B'rith convention (of which the ADL is a division)? "Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world of justice and inclusion and diversity without division. Jews and Christians and Muslims speak as one in their commitment to a kind, just, tolerant society." Foxman said he hadn't heard that speech yet.

But wait — does that "kind, just, tolerant society" include voodoo priestesses, snake handlers and pagans? Or Hindus or Buddhists or — gasp — atheists? Are Jews and Christians and Muslims, who each have had historical turns as the persecuted minority, now supposed to be the tolerant majority? Are they to band together against the rest, promising to tolerate them but hoping to convert them? Would Bush be a freedom-of-religion president, or freedom-of-major-religion president? If this is pandering — and it is — it's pandering to some very short memories.

Bush, who caught flak in the primaries for threatening to raise the ghost of the GOP's religious right, tends these days to limit his Bible-thumping to the use of faith-based organizations to do some of the government's work for it. It's a fine line that has mostly kept him out of trouble. The high quotient of religion in Lieberman's stump act, meanwhile, has civil libertarians worrying about separation and Christian conservatives wondering if Lieberman, as a Jew, is getting a free ride where Baptists fear to tread.

Monday, it seemed possible that Lieberman hadn't read his mail. "Isn't Medicare coverage of prescription drugs really about the values of the Fifth Commandment — honor your father and mother?" he asked 200 religious leaders at a Chicago prayer breakfast.

And isn't America supposed to be more about Amendments than Commandments?