WASHINGTON, Oct. 24 (JTA) Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, who has frequently included religious references in his campaign, is calling for a “conversation” to help America find its spiritual balance.
The Connecticut senator, speaking at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind., said the country was founded on values of faith and said he did not believe the Founding Fathers wanted the strong separation between church and state advocated by some in his own party.
“The line of church and state is an important one and has always been hard for us to draw, but in recent years we have gone far beyond what the framers ever imagined in separating the two,” Lieberman said. “So much so that we have practically banished religious values and religious institutions from the public square.”
When he joined Vice President Al Gore’s campaign in August, Lieberman made headlines as the first Jew on a major national ticket. But even after the novelty of his candidacy wore off, Lieberman pursued religious issues in his speeches, evoking God and biblical verses in his remarks. Those comments sparked criticism from some Jewish leaders, who felt he was crossing the line between church and state.
“Appealing along religious lines, or belief in God, is contrary to the American ideal,” said the Anti-Defamation League in a letter to Lieberman in late August, signed by the group’s national chairman, Howard Berkowitz and its national director, Abraham Foxman.
In his remarks Tuesday, Lieberman defended his use of religious speech and made specific mention of those who have opposed it.
“Some friends and foes alike discouraged me from speaking about religion anymore,” he said. “But my resolve has only been strengthened.”
He went on to say that leaders need to find the line between discussing faith in public life and not excluding those with differing viewpoints.
Foxman said Tuesday that while he agrees there is a need to find the role of faith in American politics, now is not the time to look for it.
“It’s an important debate and an important conversation,” he said. “But this is a debate that belongs in American society, not on the campaign trail.”
Although he expressed concerns with Lieberman’s continued evocation of God, he said the Notre Dame speech was softer and somewhat more inclusive, and more appropriate because it was in a university setting.
“But the issue remains that if you’re a person whose an atheist or a Muslim or a Buddhist, you felt excluded,” Foxman said.
Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he found the speech “hypocritical” because Democrats have long chastised Republicans for speaking of God in expressing views on abortion and other issues.
“This is an unprecedented call for greater religious involvement,” Brooks said. “This is part of a pattern among Democrats to use religion in speeches and their public profession.”
He cited Lieberman’s speech last week, when the candidate invoked the commandment “honor thy mother and father” as an argument for Medicare reform.
“It’s turning religion into just another political football,” said Robert Boston, assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “The more they go out of their way to show themselves as religious, the more hypocritical they seem.
“Religious people don’t have to wear it on their sleeve,” Boston said.
Lieberman’s remarks Tuesday combined religious doctrine with American history, as he repeatedly noted the role faith played in the establishment of the American government. He cited George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, among others, and noted their use of God in writing the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence.
“They knew that our experience in self-government was contingent on our faith and trust in the creator who endowed us with the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Lieberman said.
Foxman said he believes the senator’s campaign team has gotten his organization’s message, adding that he felt more comfortable with the tone of Tuesday’s remarks: “He didn’t preach, he taught,” he said.