Crossing the line of politics and religion

The following editorial appeared in today's edition of the Washington Post:

Posted: Wednesday, August 30, 2000

Sen. Joe Lieberman on Monday called the United States "the most religious country in the world." Some people in Bhutan or the Vatican might quibble with the ranking, but the general point is well taken: America is a country where faith flourishes. More than that, it's a country where many faiths flourish, usually without interfering with each other or with those who choose not to worship at all. Tolerance combined with religiousness, rather than religiousness alone, is what makes this country the envy of so many people around the world. And it's that spirit of tolerance that is endangered when politicians stray too far across a line that separates politics from religion. The line shifts from time to time; it is, inevitably and properly, ill-defined; but it matters a great deal nonetheless. It's our sense that Mr. Lieberman, Democratic candidate for vice president, has crossed it in recent days and though he's not the first to do so in this election year he ought to scurry back.

It's fine for Mr. Lieberman to talk about his faith and values and how they help shape his political decisions. Voters want to learn about the candidates; if he considers religion an important component of who he is, by all means let him tell us about it. This isn't something phony, something Mr. Lieberman has adopted recently based on pollsters' advice for the campaign trail; he's been talking about faith for a long time. And Mr. Lieberman may feel that as a member of a minority religion, he can talk with less risk of imposition; no one would accuse a Jew of wanting to force the majority's religion on those who don't want it.

But politicians of any faith and either party can go too far in promoting religion. On Sunday in a Detroit church, Mr. Lieberman said, "As a people, we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purpose." He may feel that way; fine. Not all Americans do, nor should they feel themselves to be any less American if they do not. The next day, before an audience including many rabbis and African-American ministers, Mr. Lieberman said, "We are also children of the same awesome God." To emphasize the links between blacks and whites, Jews and Christians, is admirable, but not if drawing such new, inclusive borders leaves others on the outside. When Mr. Lieberman argues for a greater role for religion in public life, he may have one thing in mind: a respect for families, say, or more resistance to pop-culture violence and pornography. But others will hear a justification for the kinds of policies that will make nonbelievers or minority believers feel out of place.

What voters really need to hear is where the candidates stand on the issues. If the subject is religion, then talk about the vexed questions of church-state relations: school prayer or moments of silence, aid to parochial schools, government support for faith-based charities, school vouchers. Tell us what you think, tell us even what you believe; but leave room for those who worship differently, or not at all.

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