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The Sin of Joe Lieberman

August 29, 2000

Senator Joseph Lieberman has already turned out to be a great asset to the Democratic ticket. His aura of moral seriousness and his evident commitment to Orthodox Judaism have gone far to erase the stains of the Clinton presidency and to counteract the impression that the Democratic Party — long the party of the New Morality — is anti-religious.

But Lieberman has gone too far for some people. His unabashed appeals to “God and God’s purpose” have provoked the Anti-Defamation League to charge him with an “inappropriate” mixing of religion and politics — in fact with “almost hawking” religion.

Actually, Lieberman’s appeals to religion are pretty bland. He praises “faith” without specifying faith in what. This is very much in the American tradition of being vaguely pro-religion while letting listeners fill in the blanks. Many presidents have gone further, asking Americans to pray (for victory in war, among other things). Not long ago politicians could safely describe this country as “a Christian nation.” No doubt the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish group, is worried that Lieberman is opening the door to a resurgence of overtly Christian politics.

Americans, and not just Jews, are generally suspicious of mixing religion and politics, and especially of politicians who parade their faith. It’s natural to suspect hypocrisy in religious gestures that are made for show; Christ himself warned against the kind of prayer that is meant chiefly to make an impression on observers.

[Breaker quote: 
Separating church and state -- properly]But there is a rival tradition, especially strong in the South, which sees public life as impoverished without religion. This tradition feels that the “separation of church and state” — a phrase associated with the Constitution, though it doesn’t appear there — has been taken to such lengths as to cramp even private religious life. Even now there is a widespread rebellion against court-imposed restrictions on community prayer, as at football games. Prayer has become a form of protest against a government that is felt to be hostile to religion.

The trouble with consigning religion to private life is that the great religions were meant to animate whole communities, not just solitary individuals. Besides, public life makes more and more demands on us, leaving privacy a shrinking residue. The state today regards everything as its business — our incomes, our habits of consumption, even our children’s education (including sex education).

Taken rigorously, the separation of church and state would mean that religion must be excluded from any area of life the state chooses to move into. A totalitarian state would leave no room at all for religion — which was exactly what happened under Communism, and is increasingly happening in “democratic” countries.

As C.S. Lewis wrote, “When the modern world says to us aloud, ‘You may be religious when you are alone,’ it adds under its breath, ‘and I will see to it that you are never alone.’ To make Christianity a private affair while banishing all privacy is to relegate it to the rainbow’s end or the Greek calends.”

Why must “God and God’s purpose” be eliminated from public discussion? Are believers supposed to pretend he doesn’t exist, or doesn’t matter? To assume that is to assume that he is only a theory or abstraction who — contrary to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — has never revealed himself to men.

Religious people are even accused of “violating the separation of church and state” when they act, argue, and vote from their convictions. But the separation of church and state is only supposed to be a limitation on the state, for the sake of religious freedom itself. To appeal to it in order to inhibit the “free exercise” of religion — including the application of sacred truth to politics — is to get everything backwards.

If God exists he does not exist as we exist, contingently, as a mere part (however great) of a larger reality. He is sovereign over everything and nothing matters more than his will. And whether we like to face it or not, our chief duty is to do his will. The divine will is not something we can set aside as a special “department” of our lives. It must guide us in everything — including many more things than Joe Lieberman has mentioned. But God bless him for reminding us.

Joseph Sobran

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