Synagogue and State


The other day I received a call from a producer at a National Public Radio affiliate in Los Angeles. She was planning a show about religion and politics, tied to Al Gore's choice of Joe Lieberman as his running mate.

She wanted to know what I thought of politicians who "wear their religion on their sleeve." Was I tired of all the sanctimony?

In my experience, I told her, sanctimony has more to do with politics than with religion. As tiresome as his censorial moralizing about "the rising tide of sex and violence in our popular culture" might be, I've never heard Lieberman claim divine sanction for his political agenda. I was not invited on the show.

This producer's questions reflected more than a healthy skepticism of using politics for religious ends. She also seemed to be suggesting that religious people shouldn't be involved in politics.

After all, it's not as if Lieberman has gone out of his way to make a show of his religious beliefs. He has not, so far as I know, kept the Sabbath or observed Jewish dietary laws more ostentatiously than any other Orthodox Jew.

As a senator and now a vice presidential candidate, Lieberman simply has been watched more closely. Especially since he was tapped for the Democratic ticket, the press has persistently called attention to his religiosity.

For some Jews, this is a welcome development. At our synagogue I recently overheard several young men who hoped that their own religious practices would seem less strange to non-Jews now that Lieberman's had been so widely discussed.

While not exactly inviting the attention, Lieberman has not discouraged it either. At the official announcement of his selection, he offered a prayer drawn from Chronicles, and he averred that Gore "has never, never wavered in his responsibilities as a father, as a husband, and, yes, as a servant of God Almighty."

That last part was a bit much; it's probably best to let God assess the quality of Gore's services to Him. But the prayer was pretty ecumenical, and it was in any event a personal statement of gratitude, not inappropriate for the occasion.

While they may disturb the NPR crowd, a politician's occasional references to God or the Bible do not threaten to destroy the separation of church and state. More troubling is the use of religious arguments in debates about public policy, as when social conservatives defend laws against sodomy by citing the biblical condemnation of homosexuality.

This sort of argument is not limited to the religious right. Michael Lerner, editor of the leftish Jewish journal Tikkun, complains that Lieberman's positions on economic issues run contrary to traditional Jewish concerns about social justice.

Evidently, God takes a dim view of cuts in the capital gains tax. Lerner thinks a better choice for the Democratic ticket, from a Jewish perspective, would have been California Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Hillary Clinton, by the way, used to be a fan of Lerner's. But now that Lieberman's place on the New York ballot promises to boost her Senate campaign, she sees herself as closer to the senator. "I consider both of us to be sort of mainstream centrist New Democrats," she told an Albany radio station.

At least she's not claiming a religious mandate. The problem with that approach is not just that people disagree about what a particular religious tradition requires. It's also that anyone who does not follow that tradition will have a comeback that's hard to rebut: So what? Why should I care what your religion says?

This is the obstacle facing a Mormon who wants to ban alcohol, a Southern Baptist who wants to ban gambling, or a Jew who wants to ban pork. In response, they can either give up, convert a majority to their religion, or offer arguments that do not hinge on a particular reading of God's will.

In his campaign against Hollywood, Lieberman has taken the last course, claiming that violent entertainment fosters crime and that parents need help in shielding their children from bad influences. He has been joined in this effort by conservative Christians such as Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, but their arguments also appeal to liberals and atheists.

So far, I haven't heard Lieberman say that God likes the V-chip or that the Bible endorses Roe v. Wade. But it's reassuring to know that NPR will be keeping an eye on him.