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Lieberman blames national woes on "freedom from religion"

AANews, #808, 28 August 2000

Continuing to blend a religious message with his election campaign, Democratic Vice Presidential hopeful Joseph Lieberman told an audience of church members in Detroit yesterday that he hopes to reinstate "a place for faith in America's public life," and called upon the country to "reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purposes."

"Let us 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," Lieberman told 500 congregants of the Fellowship Chapel during a campaign swing through Detroit.

Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, has provided Democrats with a new political weapon in their effort to "take back god" and seize the rhetorical high ground from Republicans who have, until now, appeared to have a monopoly on the issue of religion and values. The Connecticut Senator is part of the Empower America group which includes virtuecrats like former drug czar William Bennett and anti-rap crusader C. Delores Tucker. He has called for "charitable choice" programs and partnerships between government and religious groups in the administration of social services, and even supports a "moment of silence" in public schools, though he stops short of endorsing a sectarian prayer. Lieberman has also joined Republicans and Christian conservatives in denouncing what he says is gratuitous sex, violence and profanity in the mass media.

In his recent book, "In Praise of Public Life," Lieberman suggested that religion is a way of reconstructing "what has come to feel like a crumbling moral framework in the life of our nation."

Lieberman's Detroit sermon not only invoked a hard religious edge, but at times even bordered on excluding the tens of millions of Americans who profess no religious faith.

"John Adams, second president of the United States, wrote that our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people," said Lieberman. "George Washington warned us never to indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion."

He added, "We know that the Constitution wisely separates church from state, but remember: the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."

For pundits, Lieberman's oration continues to push the envelope in what has developed as a political campaign awash in religious themes and rhetorical devices. Candidates in both parties have scrambled to establish their religious faith as a credential for public office, and both Democratic and Republican platforms call for a greater role of religion in the public square, as well as involvement by faith-based groups in the operation of social services. In reporting Lieberman's remarks to the Detroit church, the New York Times noted that unlike many conservative Christian candidates, the vice presidential hopeful "has not taken positions like advocating prayer in schools or saying that religious groups should take over much of the burden of social services now shouldered by government -- a position taken by Mr. Bush, the Republican presidential nominee."

Vice President Al Gore, though, has come out in support of "faith-based partnership" which include bringing sectarian groups into the operation of social services. Gore, in fact, unveiled his "New Partnership" faith scheme in May, 1999 during a speech at a Salvation Army drug rehabilitation center in Atlanta, Georgia. There, he warned against "hollow secularism," and almost anticipating Lieberman's remarks declared: "I strongly believe in the separation of church and state. But freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion, there is a better way."

In a near-gratuitous nod to Atheists and other "unchurched" Americans, Lieberman told the Detroit congregation that people of faith must "reassure them (Atheists) that we share with them the core values of America, that our faith is not inconsistent with their freedom and our mission is not one of intolerance, but one of love."

"I stand before you today as a witness to the goodness of God," Lieberman continued. "For me, like you and like my running mate Al Gore, faith provided a foundation, order and purpose in my life."

At times, Lieberman echoed the theme of his Republican opponents -- that in a time of unprecedented economic prosperity, the nation's moral center was adrift.

"While so much of our economic life is thriving, too much of our moral live is still stagnating," he declared. "As a people, we need to reaffirm our faith."

Afterwards, Lieberman headed to a private meeting with over two dozen Arab American leaders who have voiced concerns about his tough stance on the Middle East situation. As a Senator, Lieberman has spoken out in favor of relocating the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move which many say could lead to further conflict and signal opposition to the creation of a secular Palestinian government.

(Archive of articles on the year 2000 election race)

("Is election 2000 becoming a religious 'cold war' of words?", 8-28-00)

("Bow, grovel, pray -- The Democrat retreat, Republican preaching continue," 8-17-00)

Lieberman remarks echo 1998 insult by Gore

Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman's remarks on the role of faith in public life and the suggestion that America is a nation based on religious ideology seem to reverberate comments made nearly two years ago by Al Gore. Then still months away from the primaries, Gore was nevertheless on the campaign stump when he delivered a January 19, 1998 speech in Atlanta.

Referring to gang violence and deteriorating social conditions among inner-city youth, the Vice President said: "Those who are quick to feel disrespected often have a spiritual vacuum in their lives, because they feel disconnected to the love of their Father in Heaven."

The Gore sermon brought a quick response from American Atheists. AA President Ellen Johnson told reporters, "Whether he intended to or not, Mr. Gore is unfairly connecting a lack of belief in a god with antisocial, criminal behavior. In those twenty-seven words, he just marginalized and insulted the ten percent of Americans -- over 26 million people -- who have no religious belief, and describe themselves as atheists, nonbelievers, freethinkers or skeptics of some kind.

"Would he have made that sort of remark about any other minority group, such as Buddhists? They don't believe in the Vice President's god."

Johnson added that while she applauded the antiracist aspects of Mr. Gore's talk, "He is spreading an erroneous and intolerant view that in order to be a good person, one has to embrace a 'Father in Heaven.' We beg to differ. If he wants to end the deplorable conditions which entrap some youths into a life of gang violence, we need more schools, opportunity, and decent paying jobs -- not prayers."

Ron Barrier, National Spokesperson for American Atheists, compared Gore's comments on belief to the notorious "Willie Horton" ads used by the Republicans in a past election, which demonized Democratic presidential contender Michael Dukakis for granting parole to an inmate who then committed murder.

"In effect, Gore is unwittingly characterizing a large segment of the U.S. population as the next 'Willie Horton.' This is unfortunate and counterproductive to any dialogue between those who 'believe' and those who don't."

AANEWS is a free service from American Atheists, a nationwide movement founded by Madalyn Murray O'Hair for the advancement of Atheism, and the total, absolute separation of government and religion.

You may forward, post or quote from this dispatch, provided that appropriate credit is given to AANEWS and American Atheists. Please do not post complete editions of this newsletter indiscriminately to newsgroups, boards or other outlets. Edited by Conrad Goeringer, cg@atheists.org. Internet Representative for American Atheists is Margie Wait, irep@atheists.org.

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