I was thrilled when Al Gore picked Joseph Lieberman to be his running mate. It restored a bit of my confidence in the United States political system. A man, acting on conscience, could still effect change and make a tough decision and it seemed like the American people could accept it and, in a way, grow. I felt it was progress. The United States had turned away from its rather narrow definition of acceptable national candidates. I thought the door had been thrust wide open. I was wrong.
Joseph Lieberman is an Orthodox Jew and in that way, yes, he is very different from his predecessors. Yet it is his observance of his religion that allows him to slip so easily into the role he has been chosen for. The senator is a devout believer, and in some ways very public with his faith. In his acceptance speech, Lieberman thanked God no less than 30 times. He has repeatedly made Gore’s faith and personal morality centerpieces of his stump speeches. Governor Bush may always ask “What Would Jesus Do?,” but Lieberman is not far behind in public affirmations of faith.
Perhaps this puts the senator in step with the rest of the country. The United States is one of the most religious countries in the world and certainly the most religious developed Western nation. Routinely in surveys, 40 percent of Americans claim to be regular churchgoers. This is in comparison with countries in Europe where the rate is closer to 10 percent. The United States is a country of believers.
I see nothing wrong with this. Personal faith is just that: personal. It is not my place nor anyone else’s to determine the validity of another’s views. If one wishes to share their faith with a greater religious community, then that’s a personal decision as well. The issue with faith, though, is when it becomes a substitute for – or is used as evidence of – a different aspect of life, particularly morality. This is very often the case in the United States.
For many years, Americans have equated faith with a type of personal moral code. This is true with public figures and those in local communities as well. One’s personal faith has become evidence enough of personal morality. Yet I have known too many atheists and agnostics who live rigorously moral lives and too many who claim to be devout believers and regular churchgoers who hypocritically act in contrivance of those beliefs for me to accept this link. In recent years, Americans have accepted a politician’s statement of faith as evidence of character: George W. Bush is a born-again Christian so he must be a good and moral man. In my opinion this is not sufficient. Evidence of morality asks for more than just a repeated affirmation of faith.
What is more, this American religious nature sometimes generates a type of superiority complex. In the 19th century it was known as manifest destiny. More recently, Lieberman made this statement in a speech last week: “Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the rest of the world.” Patriotism is one thing, but the only person I can remember whom God actually told he had chosen was Moses. Lieberman, and the rest of us, should be careful that faith not lead us into arrogance.
This is not to say that faith must necessarily lead in this direction and has only negatives associated with it. I am only now just learning faith’s numerous benefits what they add to my life. Yet the dangers exist and Americans should recognize what they are. Faith, like everything else, is a two-sided coin.
So that brings us back to Lieberman. In contrast with my gut instinct, the senator fits squarely within the U.S. religious tradition. His faith is very important to him and that’s not a bad thing. I even think that he is a moral man with values I share.
But I don’t feel this way because of his faith; rather, it is because of the actions he takes. His opposition to children being exposed to violence and obscenity in the mass media, his condemnation of the president’s behavior and his commitment to equal opportunity are all stances that convince me of his character.
But when he wears his religion on his sleeve, he places himself in line with his predecessors as national candidates who have showcased their faith as a credential to appeal for votes. Yes, Joseph Lieberman’s religion makes him different from his predecessors, but to break a real barrier Americans will have to consider a non-believer and I’m not sure we’re ready for that.