The Lieberman Factor
The repercussions of Democratic Presidential candidate Al Gore’s seminal selection of Senator Joseph Lieberman as his running mate are not only helping to decide the presidential election, but also are being felt on the wider national Jewish and political scenes. The Vice Presidential selection was a transparent attempt by Gore to distance himself from President Clinton’s scandals. Joe Lieberman has often been referred to as the “conscience of the Senate”. He has repeatedly denounced the pornographic and violent products of Hollywood. Lieberman was also the first Democrat in the Senate to denounce Clinton during the Lewinsky affair, though he didn’t vote for impeachment. The political wisdom of Gore’s pick of Leiberman was immediately confirmed. Gore had been trailing 17 points in the polls prior to the selection of Lieberman, but within a few days Gore was tied with Bush in the polls. At that time there was a chorus of approval for Lieberman. Literally, no one had anything bad to say about him. Indeed, Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Dick Cheney stated his wish that Lieberman was a Republican.
The one element that now permeates Lieberman’s public persona has been his religion. He is of course the first Jewish Vice Presidential candidate. Yet, if Lieberman were just ethnically Jewish, he would not be as historically unique as he is. There have been Jewish Prime Ministers in Europe, such as Leon Blum of France. Unlike those men, Lieberman is an Orthodox Jew. For the Jewish community this appointment is critical, because both the Jewish right and left constantly assert that the only way that the Jewish people can be acclimated to modern society is at the expense of the Torah. Joe Lieberman may help prove this concept wrong. Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew and a Senator at the same time, was chosen precisely because of his religion, from where his morals stem. Lieberman has spread his belief that religion must play a more prominent role in public life, on the campaign trail. Thus, he has been accused of attempting to violate the separation of church and state.
Religion has held a helpful and constructive role in the general outlook of Presidents since Washington. In fact, Lieberman has referred to Washington’s statement that there is no morality without religion. Both Jefferson and Lincoln constantly called upon G-d in their writings. Truman wrote a letter to the Pope referring to America as a “Christian nation”. Eisenhower inserted in the national anthem “under god” and the national currency “in God we trust”. What animated the thought systems of these men was the idea that a higher deity, or history, or destiny, was on their side. This idea served as a way to legitimize the often-unsavory means to acomplish vastly important ends, such as when Eisenhower overthrew the socialist, democratically elected leader of Guatemala. This act on a small scale destroyed democracy in one Central American country, but on a larger scale kept the Western Hemisphere safe for democracy.
Through this habit of mind various Presidents used religion to validate secular goals. This practice, though necessary, has always been dangerous too. First of all, there is the pernicious temptation of breaking one’s own principles temporarily to establish them later on. Secondly, there is the need to maintain the separation between church and state. From Lieberman’s acceptably vague call for more religion in public life, it is not a long road to Bush’s unacceptably specific “Jesus day”. Sometimes the line between beneficial and right use of religion and destructive and wrong use of religion can get so blurred that there is no line at all. It is too soon to tell how Lieberman and his religious beliefs will effect the election, the Jews and the nation.