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Jewish World Review Sept. 1, 2000 /1 Elul, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

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A Place for Faith

Joe Lieberman's bold talk about religion is making liberals very queasy -- Just when you thought it was safe to write off Sen. Joe Lieberman as a figure incapable of changing the direction of political debate in this country, the Democratic candidate for vice president stirred things up last weekend in a speech at a Detroit church.

In the weeks since his nomination, Lieberman had been playing it safe, staying away from many of the themes that had marked him as a centrist Democrat. He backed off of his criticism affirmative action and played down previous differences with the Clinton administration over the location of the U.S. Embassy in Israel.

But on Aug. 27, at the Fellowship Chapel, an African-American church in Detroit, Lieberman boldly reverted to his centrist personna by making a statement that could signal a change in the way church-state separation issues are discussed.

Lieberman told the congregation, “As a people, we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to G-d and G-d’s purpose.”

That is unusual language for a political candidate. Then, after discarding the liberal consensus on church-state separation that has governed politics for more than a generation, Lieberman went even further.

Seemingly going back to what lawyers would call the “original intent” of the founders of our nation, Lieberman noted: “John Adams, second president of the United States, wrote that our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. George Washington warned us never to indulge the supposition ‘that morality can be maintained without religion.’ ”

That is a departure from Democratic support for the “high wall” of separation that many — especially in the Jewish community — have taken as the guarantor of our freedoms, but which others with less “separationist” ideology believe is too rigid.

Lieberman went on to remind his listeners that “there must be a place for faith in America’s public life ... . We know that the Constitution wisely separates church from state, but remember: the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”

Lieberman’s speech was an admirable statement of the same set of ideas that supporters of government aid to parents of students in private and religious schools via vouchers — such as Lieberman himself — have put forward in recent years.

Had Dick Cheney, the Republican nominee for vice president, said the same thing, liberals — and especially liberal Jews — would have been outraged. But, given their need to support Vice President Al Gore for president, my guess is that most liberals will hypocritically give Lieberman a pass on his separationist heresy.

As it is, the Anti-Defamation League did fire off a press release gently reproving Lieberman, saying that “appealing to voters along religious lines is contrary to the American ideal ... . [A]n emphasis on religion in a political campaign becomes inappropriate and even unsettling in a religiously diverse society such as ours.”

The ADL claimed that language such as Lieberman’s “risks alienating the American people.”

Of course, they have it completely wrong. Statements such as Lieberman’s are exactly what the majority of the Americans want to hear and what Democrats — who need to prevent the GOP from casting them as left-wing critics of traditional values — need to say. That’s why Gore and his strategists have unleashed Lieberman to talk about religion.

The only people really alienated by Lieberman’s talk are Jewish liberals!

Lieberman’s pushing of the envelope on separation rhetoric has to scare ideologues who hope that a victorious Democratic ticket will adhere to liberal orthodoxy on separationism.

Gore himself has spoken of his interest in such "compassionate conservative" ideas as charitable choice which will emphasize private and religious efforts to aid the poor as opposed to relying solely on the power of the government. Though centrist/liberal groups such as the American Jewish Committee are in favor of it, it isn't clear just how far the Democrats will be willing to go on charitable choice because it allows religious organizations to take on a role hitherto reserved for big government. But an administration that is as comfortable with religion in the public sphere as Lieberman is has to be considered one which may expand it despite concerns about attaching religious strings to services offered to the poor.

By a fortuitous coincidence, the same day that Lieberman’s speech hit the national press, a study on a similarly contentious issue — school vouchers — was made public.

The study, conducted by respected scholars from Harvard University, the University of Wisconsin and Georgetown University, centered on three experiments in allowing parents to choose a private or religious school instead of a public school for their children. It contrasted the achievement of students who made use of vouchers with those who wanted them but lost out in the lottery for the few opportunities to opt out of state-run schools.

The study showed that among black students, those who were given vouchers scored an average of six points higher in reading and in math over those who remained behind in public schools in New York City, the District of Columbia and Dayton, Ohio.

As with previous scholarly investigations that have also illustrated the promise vouchers offer, separationist critics are doing their best to minimize or discount the results. But it is impossible to ignore the fact that the momentum for vouchers is slowly building.

The timing of this latest proof of the value of exploring educational alternatives is interesting, precisely because it is the liberal fear of religious involvement that is driving most of the opposition to school choice. Although Gore and the Democratic platform vehemently oppose vouchers, Lieberman has long favored them. Since his nomination, Lieberman has said he has not changed his mind on the issue but that in the future he will not speak out on it.

However, Lieberman’s very public advocacy of the role of faith in public life may be laying the groundwork for the next round of debates on vouchers and making it easier for Democrats — and Jews — to rethink their knee-jerk opposition to the concept.

It was especially apt that he spoke on religion and state to a black audience, because it is disadvantaged families in the inner cities trapped in failing public schools who have the most at stake in the vouchers controversy.

Suburban liberals — as well as the majority of American Jews who oppose vouchers — are on the spot here, because African-Americans are increasingly supportive of voucher plans. Disadvantaged Americans deserve more than a condescending dose of liberal rhetoric from voucher opponents; they deserve solutions.

This is a drama that will eventually be played out independent of the November election. But whether or not the Democratic ticket wins, Joe Lieberman is breaking a path that will allow American Jews to take a new look at the issue of religion in the public square.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. He was the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association's highest awards in two categories: First Place in the Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary and Editorial Writing for his column "Israel's China Syndrome -- and Ours" and First Place for Excellence in Arts and Criticism for his column "Jewish Art, Jewish Artists." The awards were given to Mr. Tobin at the AJPA's 2000 Simon Rockower Awards dinner at Washington D.C. on June 22, 2000. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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