Ever since he was selected to run for vice president on the Democratic ticket, Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s faith has been a source of curiosity for non-Jews – and pride for Jews.
Now, some Jews are beginning to get uncomfortable with how much Lieberman is playing up his religion in the pursuit of votes. The first complaint, in fact, came from a Jewish organization.
The Anti-Defamation League sent a letter to Lieberman on Monday calling on him to keep religion out of the presidential campaign.
“Appealing along religious lines, or belief in God, is contrary to the American ideal,” said the ADL letter signed by National Chairman Howard Berkowitz and National Director Abraham Foxman.
The letter came a day after Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, told an audience at an African-American church in Detroit on Sunday that Americans need to renew the “dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God’s purpose.”
The ADL sent a similar letter last year to the eight Republican and Democratic candidates for president after several candidates made statements emphasizing their religious beliefs.
Political pundits have chided Lieberman, the first Jew to run on a major national party ticket, for overusing biblical quotations and references to God. However, polls have indicated that most Americans believe in God, and many have said they want religion to play a larger role in public life.
At issue with Lieberman, however, is whether his public pronouncements of faith as a personal moral compass may occasionally alienate those who do not hold the same beliefs.
Foxman told JTA that some people believe Lieberman had already crossed the line in earlier speeches that invoked God, but the degree and intensity of Lieberman’s remarks on Sunday and at an interfaith breakfast on Monday forced the issue for the ADL.
The public chastising from the ADL surprised some Jewish leaders and organizations.
“They have confused the violation of church-state separation with spiritual and faith issues,” said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union.
He said Lieberman has not come anywhere near crossing the line of inappropriate use of religious beliefs in a public campaign.
Agudath Israel of America, a fervently Orthodox organization, agrees. Its executive vice president for government and public affairs, David Zwiebel, wrote in a letter to Foxman that most Americans admire Lieberman for his public expressions of faith.
“At a time when perhaps the greatest crisis America faces is a crisis of values, a candidate for national office who speaks unashamedly of his own religious faith and of the positive role religion can play in strengthening our society is to be commended, not condemned,” Zwiebel wrote.
Lieberman, himself, keeps trying to make the distinction between the personal and the political.
“I hope people understand the difference between separation of church and state and an individual’s right, including a public individual’s right, to express matters of faith,” he said in a recent interview with the Jewish media.
Asked if he thought his openness of his faith made people uncomfortable, he said, “I hope it doesn’t.”
He added that there are points at which his faith is personal and has “nothing to do with my public responsibility.”
A Lieberman campaign spokesman said the senator “has great respect for the role faith has played in the lives of so many Americans. He has often expressed his views on the importance of the separation of church and state and he believes that the ADL has done a lot of good work, but in this case he respectfully disagrees.”
Lieberman’s use of his religious beliefs is not necessarily a problem, according to the National Jewish Democratic Council.
The time to worry would be if a candidate’s religious views work to exclude people or translate to policies that are inappropriate, said David Harris, the council’s deputy executive director.
But a religious liberty watchdog group is taking Lieberman to task for his use of religious rhetoric.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote a letter to Lieberman on Tuesday urging him to stop using religion as a political tool.
“Presenting yourself to the nation as a religious man is both understandable and expected,” wrote the Rev. Barry Lynn, the group’s executive director. “However, it appears that what began as an introduction to the nation has unfortunately become standard campaign rhetoric.”
Lynn said the more Lieberman uses religion in his campaigning the more difficult it will be for voters to ignore religious matters at the ballot box.
“When religion is used repeatedly in the context of a presidential campaign, faith then becomes a political tool,” Lynn wrote.
“Manipulation of religion in this fashion not only does damage to the political process, it cheapens and exploits religion for partisan ends.”
However, since Lieberman had more explaining and educating to do about his religious beliefs than most candidates, he ought to be cut some slack, said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center.
Now that he has made the point of who he is, Lieberman has to be careful not to overuse his religious language and make people feel like outsiders, Saperstein said.
“The last thing he would want to do is make people feel left out.”