- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 30, 2000

Protests that God-talk in the 2000 political contest is a departure from American custom have prompted historians to ask: What would George Washington and Thomas Jefferson do?
One third of Washington's first inaugural invoked God, or the "providential agency in the founding of the nation."
And Jefferson, accused of being a Francophile atheist in the bitter 1800 election, closed his first annual message by saying exaltation of God brought "conciliation and forgiveness" to the nation.
Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore has followed that tradition, citing on the campaign stump a popular slogan known by Christian teens, "WWJD" What Would Jesus Do?
Texas Gov. George W. Bush cited Jesus as his favorite political philosopher, and signed off on "Jesus Day" in Texas drawing strong media criticism.
But a new twist arose Monday when the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) warned one of its own, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman an Orthodox Jew and Mr. Gore's running mate that he is overplaying God-talk.
"We feel very strongly, and we hope you would agree, that appealing along religious lines, or belief in God, is contrary to the American ideal," the ADL said. "Language such as this risks alienating the American people."
Historians said yesterday it is hard to say the "American ideal" excluded God or religion when the first act of the Continental Congress was to pray and when the civil rights movement cited God as its authority.
"My initial response [to the ADL] is, that is simply unhistorical," said Daniel L. Driesbach, a Rhodes scholar and historian at American University.
He noted that Washington added the words "So help me God" to the oath of office.
"These same traditions have been uniformly followed by every president up to the current office holder," said Mr. Driesbach.
"There's nothing new, or particularly different, in how these candidates use the deity in political discourse," he said.
Like the ADL, which protects Jews from discrimination and anti-Semitism, historians agree that religious conflict has embroiled politics and that minorities often have suffered at the hands of majorities.
But to "muzzle God runs deeply against the American experience," said Samuel G. Freedman, a Columbia University professor and author of "Jews vs. Jews," which looks at modern divisions in American Jewry.
"What you are getting here is the perplexity of secular Jews at Orthodoxy," Mr. Freedman said.
For Jews, he said, a rise of religious fervor may have been a threat in Europe, but never has been in the United States. He also rejected the claim that Mr. Lieberman's overt religion would "trigger a reservoir of anti-Semitism."
In fact, the Lieberman religious rhetoric in question was made Sunday to black churchgoers.
"This is just voluntary expression, and if people don't like it, they can vote for someone else," Mr. Freedman said. "Why would the assumption be that this kind of religious talk risks dividing people in a dangerous way?"
Not that religion has always brought the "conciliation and forgiveness" that Jefferson referred to in 1801.
The year before, he was decried as a French-aligned atheist, while pro-Jefferson forces derided their opponents as divine-right monarchists friendly to Britain.
During the 1820s, a time of religious revivals and sectarianism, there were calls similar to the ADL's, urging parties to avoid claiming God was on their side.
The national crisis of the Civil War, however, prompted Abraham Lincoln a mild religious skeptic to proclaim in 1863, "We have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace."
David Walsh, professor of politics at Catholic University of America, said Catholic immigrants suffered discrimination when they rejected Protestant public education.
But he is not sure that President Kennedy's 1960 promise that his religion had nothing to do with his policy was the ideal solution.
"I think that was excessively pragmatic and a little bit calculating," Mr. Walsh said. "If you're sincere about your religion, it's going to play some role. If you're not sincere, then perhaps you are not a good candidate."
Yet more recent efforts to force religion from politics has created a problem with finding a basis for morals and for freedom of religious speech, critics have said.
Last year, in his Red Mass homily attended by several Supreme Court justices and lawmakers, Catholic Bishop Raymond J. Boland lamented that "devotees of secularism are 'more equal' " than religious people in America.
"It seems incredible, but now and again there are those who maintain that believers have no right to engage in the public debate," he said.
The engagement, in fact, is a new area of study and public policy, explaining why both the Democrats and Republicans are backing welfare service by faith-based organization that can keep their religious languages.
A new Brookings Institution book, "What's God Got Do With the American Experiment?" declares that "the history of the United States, despite many outbreaks of prejudice and nativism, is largely a history of religion's role as a prod to social justice, inclusion, and national self-criticism."
Forest Montgomery, legal counsel for the National Association of Evangelicals, said religious minorities must be defended and given a voice to remind the nation of its motivating faith.
"Lieberman is ideally suited because he is a minority committed to religious pluralism," he said. "It's more difficult for somebody of a majority faith to talk that way without some people feeling uncomfortable."
As to the ADL's discomfort with Mr. Lieberman, he said, "I was just flabbergasted at the idea that religion in politics is 'contrary to the American ideal.' "

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