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Joe Lieberman’s Dual Orthodoxies

August 10, 2000

Al Gore and Joe Lieberman are quoting the Bible all over the place. They seem to want to assure this God-fearing country that they are guided by Holy Writ in all they do, even when supporting abortion, infanticide, and the lifestyles of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Gore has taken Lieberman unto him as his lawfully anointed running mate for the obvious purpose of creating a moral contrast with that other famous Bible-quoter, Bill Clinton. Two years ago, during the impeachment debate, Lieberman performed a single act of moral grandstanding that seems to define him in the minds of those who look no deeper. By calling Clinton’s Monica-related behavior “immoral,” he suddenly became, as they say, the Conscience of His Party.

In the shorthand of the media, Joe Lieberman is now virtually synonymous with Conscience, just as John McCain is synonymous with Straight Talk. It doesn’t take much to earn these tags. A few gestures will do. Lieberman didn’t even have to suggest that Clinton resign from the presidency, and he finally voted, with the rest of his party, to acquit Clinton of the very deeds he had affected to find “intolerable.”

After complaining for years that Republicans were making abortion a “litmus test,” the Democrats have done the same thing in reverse, except that they are much less tolerant of dissent than the Republicans. More than any other issue, abortion now defines the Democrats. And they have committed themselves to defending even the grisliest slaughter of the unborn. On this, Joe Lieberman hasn’t broken ranks.

How can anyone with an active conscience support late-term abortion? Did Lieberman’s conscience cause him to favor legal abortion (in the early stages of pregnancy) back when there was a moral consensus against it? Or did he, like Clinton and Gore, merely adopt this position when it became fashionable? Isn’t conscience supposed to be the part of us that holds out against fashion and social pressure?

Even when early-term legal abortion was imposed on the country by the U.S. Supreme Court, part of the old consensus remained. The Court said the states could protect unborn children once they became “viable,” or capable of living outside the womb. At least everyone seemed to agree that killing a child who is ready for birth — a painful and ugly business — was beyond the pale.

[Breaker quote: Can you 
serve both Moses and Moloch?]In time even that minimal limit crumbled. Under Clinton’s moral leadership, the Democratic Party became corporately devoted to protecting what some call, too gently, “partial-birth abortion” — the dismembering of the child in the birth canal, by extracting the brain and crushing the skull. Al Gore, once a “pro-lifer,” though he falsely denied it for a time, followed the leader. And so did the Conscience of His Party, Joe Lieberman.

For such men, their party is their conscience. They didn’t arrive at this “position” (telling word!) by independent introspection. They weren’t advocating it ahead of the pack, when nobody else was doing so. No, they were obedient to party leadership and peer pressure. When the party changed, they changed too.

In a way, Lieberman is slicker than Clinton. He fools people who aren’t fooled by Clinton. He doesn’t strike you as slippery; he doesn’t seem to rely on glib and facile charm. He creates the impression that he is marching to a different drummer.

Part of his appeal is that he is an observant Orthodox Jew. The country, predominantly if tenuously Christian, responds eagerly to a man who seems magnificently aloof from superficial contemporary influences, rooted in the inflexible morality of the Old Testament. Lieberman manages to do this while simultaneously appearing modern and urbane in his manner.

It’s a very attractive persona — rather like McCain’s gruff soldier image. Clinton, whose winning volubility is inseparable from his boneless moral flexibility, has renewed our craving for solid character.

So why does Joe Lieberman always wind up, in the end, in such close harmony with a party that stands in nearly total opposition to the traditions of both the Old and New Testaments? You cannot serve God and Mammon — or Moses and Moloch.

How can you be at once an Orthodox Jew and an orthodox Democrat?

Joseph Sobran

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