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Lieberman Urges 'Place for Faith' in Public Life

By Ceci Connolly, Washington Post,
Monday 28 August 2000

DETROIT, Aug. 27 -- Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, choosing a black church in the inner city here to open his first full week of solo campaigning on the Democratic ticket, today delivered an impassioned appeal for a return of faith to public life.

In a 30-minute address that likened President Clinton to Moses and praised the Founding Fathers for finding guidance in Scripture, Lieberman suggested that America is "moving to a new spiritual awakening."

"I stand before you today as a witness to the goodness of God," he told several hundred members of the Fellowship Chapel. "For me, like you, and like my running mate Al Gore, faith provided a foundation, order and purpose to my life."

The man chosen three weeks ago as Vice President Gore's running mate made passing reference to the separation of church and state, but focused the heart of his remarks on what he characterized as a rich tradition of linking strong moral beliefs with political leadership.

"The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion," he said. "There must be and can be a constitutional place for faith in our public life."

With Labor Day still a week away, few voters have focused on the presidential race, but Lieberman's comments were striking because of his comfort level in drawing faith--in an optimistic tone--into an otherwise harshly partisan contest.

Alternately witty and reflective, the Connecticut senator wove the spiritual into his political pitch at every stop, raising the prospect of the first national candidacy since John F. Kennedy's 40 years ago to place religion at the heart of the presidential campaign dialogue.

"While so much of our economic life is thriving, too much of our moral life is still stagnating," said the man who has used his Senate post to crusade against sex and violence in popular culture. "As a people we need to reaffirm our faith."

An observant Jew who does not campaign on the Sabbath, Lieberman has quickly proven himself adept at speaking the language of many religions and using faith as a rhetorical avenue to discuss the American dream, mass culture and civil rights. His selection was a "miracle," and a chance encounter with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was like hearing "the voice of Moses."

Lieberman hailed the Democratic victory eight years ago as nearing the political promised land. In another allusion to Moses, he said: "You might say the Red Sea finally parted, and more Americans than ever before walked through behind President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore."

Even Lieberman's new charter airplane--owned by Spirit Airlines--fit with the theme of the day. "The Spirit literally moved me," he said with a chuckle, describing today's maiden flight.

After already crediting Gore with breaking one barrier by naming a Jewish running mate, Lieberman said he hopes his historic run will, in some respects, knock down a second religious barrier.

"I hope it will enable people--all people who are moved--to feel more free to talk about their faith and about their religion," he said.

Lieberman was careful to include a message of inclusion in the predominantly black church, noting that "we share with [nonbelievers] the core values of America that our faith is not inconsistent with their freedom and that our mission is not one of intolerance but one of love."

Yet he was more emotional in his pleas to live a more spiritual life.

"Let's break through some of the inhibitions that have existed to talk together across the flimsy lines of separation of faith, to talk together, to study together, to pray together and ultimately to sing together His holy name," he said.

At another point he lamented: "I miss the days when faith was discussed in public and not the most intimate details of our personal lives."

Although the Rev. Wendell Anthony's church was the logical setting for Lieberman to detail his religious beliefs, the theme was a recurring one today. At a rally later in the suburb of Southfield, he told a favorite joke involving a boy, his minister and the punch line: "I'll be damned!"

Lieberman also met privately in Southfield with about 25 Arab American leaders who voiced concern over his past support for sanctions against Iraq and for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. After the session, several said they were encouraged by Lieberman's willingness to meet again but do not yet feel confident to encourage others in the community to enthusiastically back the Democratic ticket.

"This was the beginning of a dialogue on the issues," said Ismael Ahmed, director of the Arab Community Center in Dearborn, Mich.

Some in Anthony's United Church of Christ congregation said they initially had doubts about Lieberman because of a record that has been described as moderate-to-conservative, particularly on issues such as school vouchers and the partial privatization of Social Security. But Anthony helped make the way easier for Lieberman by describing the senator's civil rights work in the 1960s.

And although he comes from "a different faith," Lieberman said: "You know and I know that I feel right at home here today because we're all children of the same God."

Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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