Terry Mattingly: Joe Lieberman believed in the role of faith in politics

Former Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Connecticut, speaks in Washington earlier this year. Lieberman, who nearly won the vice presidency on the Democratic ticket with Al Gore in the disputed 2000 election and who almost became Republican John McCain’s running mate eight years later, died March 27.

Associated Press photo

The fall of 2011 was a symbolic time for Sen. Joseph Lieberman to deliver an address at Brigham Young University on faith and public service.

The White House race was heating up, and Mitt Romney was on his way to winning the Republican nomination. Some politicos were worried that Romney could become the first member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to fill that role.

“I don’t share that anxiety,” he said, drawing on his experiences in 2000 as Vice President Al Gore’s running mate — Lieberman was the first Jew on a major party’s presidential ticket. “A candidate does not give up their freedom of religion or freedom of expression when they decide to run for office. They have the right, if they choose, to talk about the role that faith plays in their life, understanding that others have the right to decide, based on those expressions, whether that affects their view of those candidates.”

For example, Lieberman explained that, as a college freshman, he was inspired when John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic elected as president.

“I will tell you that as a young Jewish American — though I was not thinking of a political career, believe me, at age 18 — when he won, I had some sense that doors had opened for me, that somehow a horizon had expanded for me and for others who were from faiths that were not the majority, for different races, or for other nationalities.”

Lieberman died on March 27 at age 82, ending a career defined as much by his life as an Orthodox Jew as by his attempts to remain a centrist as Democrats kept moving to the cultural left. While voting with his party on issues such as abortion, gun control and gay rights, he was a strong supporter of religious liberty — including for conservatives who frequently clashed with his party.

During his years in the Senate, Lieberman had many friends on the Republican side of the aisle, often cooperating with conservatives on bipartisan projects addressing hunger, low-income housing, relief programs in Africa and government support for faith-based charities. In 1998, he was the first Democrat at the national level to openly call Bill Clinton’s behavior “immoral” after the president’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

In 2005, Lieberman appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program, openly supporting the presence of religious faith in public life in terms familiar to both his friends and enemies.

“This is a country founded by Christians, a majority of whose citizens are Christians. But … those rights to life, liberty and a pursuit of happiness — which we have as the endowment of our Creator — have been given to everybody,” Lieberman explained. “I will say to you as a Jewish American that I believe in the 5,765 years of Jewish history, there has never been a country, other than Israel during certain times of its history, which has given Jews more freedom.”

During his BYU address, Lieberman praised what President Abraham Lincoln had called the country’s “political religion” — an approach to democracy that openly embraced the First Amendment rights of believers and unbelievers alike. At the same time, it’s impossible to study American history without recognizing religious faith as a “force for great good,” Lieberman added.

“Some of the most important movements of conscience in our history emerged from the convictions of religious people and used the language and liturgy of faith to build popular support,” he said. “I am thinking of the abolitionist movement in the 19th century that led to the end of the evil of slavery. … And it was that same spirit that I was personally privileged to witness when I was a college student in the ’60s and participated in the civil rights movement led by a religious figure, Dr. Martin Luther King.”

It is especially important, Lieberman concluded, to recognize the positive power of religious faith during times of turmoil and division.

“We need America’s faith and values to be brought to Washington,” he said. “We come to Congress, to the White House, and to the administration generally as people of faith. And it seems to me that when we get there, we don’t act as if those principles that I’ve just talked about guide our lives.”

Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi. Send comments to [email protected].